Biological invasions threaten global economies and biodiversity

Developing nations particularly at risk

By Kat Kerlin

With the increasing pace of globalization comes the movement of invasive non-native species around the planet. Although often seen as a “first-world problem,” a new study shows these invasions threaten the economies and livelihoods of residents in some of the world’s poorest nations.

The harlequin ladybird was introduced to North America from Asia in 1916 to control aphids. It has spread to Europe and though beloved by many, is considered a pest in some regions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The harlequin ladybird was introduced to North America from Asia in 1916 to control aphids. It has spread to Europe and though beloved by many, is considered a pest in some regions. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, showed that nearly a sixth of the planet’s terrestrial habitats are highly susceptible to invasions. The damage caused by non-native species like the Harlequin ladybird, water hyacinth, and American mink threaten global biodiversity and cost world economies $1.4 trillion per year.

“Together with changes in land use, climate and environmental stressors, many countries are at risk of new and potentially damaging introductions,” said co-author Ted Grosholz, a UC Davis professor of environmental science and policy. “We find that developing nations and hotspots of biodiversity are particularly at risk.”

Air travel brings invasive species to Africa and Asia

The imports of pets and plants have caused much of the global biological invasions in the past. In the future, air travel will be responsible for most biological invasions of Africa and Asia. This will be exacerbated by climate change and intensifying agriculture, which make it easier for invasive species to become established.

While rich nations are accustomed to the nuisance of invasive species and are increasingly taking protective action, poorer economies lack the operational infrastructure to do so. Their economies are crucially reliant on international trade and have little power to regulate imports, so the introduction of dangerous species continues largely unchecked.

Alien invasions in developing world

Prickly pear cacti are invasive in regions such as Africa and Australia, where they outcompete native plants, making farming and grazing lands unproductive. Credit: Public domain

Prickly pear cacti are invasive in regions such as Africa and Australia, where they outcompete native plants, making farming and grazing lands unproductive. Credit: Public domain

Biological invasions in the developing world so far have included Panama disease, which wiped out banana plantations in Central and South America, and prickly pear, which devastates grassland in Africa, leading to cattle being malnourished and people losing their livelihoods. A new strain of Panama disease currently threatens the global banana market.

“Rampant globalization will lead to invasions in countries with the least capability to deal with them,” said lead author Regan Early, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter in England. “We need more international cooperation, and for the U.S., Australia and nations in Europe to share expertise.”

The study recommends strategies that combine better information about potentially harmful species, as well as guidelines for cooperative regional efforts for both developing and developed economies. The researchers hope their findings will lead to governments and NGOs improving methods to warn communicates of biological invasion threats and provide solutions.

Map of global biological invasion threat. “VL” is very low; “VH” is very high. Courtesy Ted Grosholz/UC Davis.

Map of global biological invasion threat. “VL” is very low; “VH” is very high. Courtesy Ted Grosholz/UC Davis.

Kat Kerlin writes about the environment for UC Davis Strategic Communications. Follow her at @UCDavis_Kerlin

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