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Invasive species has become a growing problem in our world’s oceans in the last 30 years. And it is only within the last 30 years that we have started to really understand these species, their growing numbers, how they are transported, why it is a problem, and what we can do to combat it.
An invasive species is defined as any non-indigenous species, plant or animal, which adversely affect habitats they invade be it economic, environmental, and/or ecological. Essentially an invasive species is a life form from another part of the world that gets transported to another and then invades that new land. So really when you think about it- an alien.
How do these aliens get transported? A lot of marine and aquatic animals are transferred through ballast water. When a ship docks and unloads its cargo, it must then take on water to load the ship back down. When the ships returns to its home dock it can dump the water and reload. Unfortunately, a lot of creatures can get caught in this ballast water and end up returning home with the ship. Some animals can also attach themselves to the bottoms of boats and travel. And other animals have actually been transported by humans through poor pet ownership.
Louisiana is no stranger to these aliens. From plants to fish to mammals, the Gulf has a wide span of invasive species. One of the most well known is the nutria (also known as coypu), a large semi-aquatic, herbivore, rodent. This animal originally was native to parts of South America and was introduced in North America by fur ranchers. Nutria would often escape or be set free from these farms when they became unprofitable for the ranchers. Here in Louisiana, they are a big problem because they love vegetation that grows in our wetlands. If our wetlands do not have proper vegetation, it directly affects our wetlands health and ability to serve as a storm buffer.
A well known local invasive fish species are the Rio Grande cichlid (pictured). This species like its name suggests originated in the Rio Grande River. They became a popular home aquarium fish in the 1980’s and it is believed pet owners releasing their pet fish into local canals are to blame for the introduction to Louisiana. It didn’t take long for these fish to multiply and spread throughout the canal system and Lake Pontchartrain. These fish can out-compete native fish and can carry parasites that can be harmful to other fish.
So what can you do to help stop invasions like this from happening?
- We can all do our part by being responsible pet owners. Never release a pet back into the wild- be it fish or mammal.
- If you have a boat, wash off the bottom before returning to your home port.
- If you garden, be sure to plant native plants vs. exotic.
- Spread the word about invasive species.
Here at the Audubon Aquarium of the America’s, we have a great exhibit that showcases the affects the Rio Grande cichlid has on the ecosystem. This exhibit it part of our Living in Water Gallery located across from the Seahorses Gallery on the 2ndfloor. Stop on by for proof that aliens are out there! :-)