In case you haven’t heard, there’s an invasion going on. It’s not something you are likely to notice walking out the front door; but it’s taking place on a scale that would have seemed incredible a few years ago. Anyone who’s been stung by a fire ant has encountered it and nearly every field biologist is painfully aware of it. It’s an invasion of exotic plants, insects and animals, and it’s never been more serious.
It’s hard to completely escape the news stories about Asian carp and “killer bees”, brown marmorated stink bugs and giant salvinia, but somehow most of us seem to remain either oblivious or unconcerned about this foreign invasion. Granted, fishermen in Texas are beginning to notice new mats of dense Salvinia weeds choking boat docks, and Texas ranchers have complained for years about the dense thickets of salt cedar crowding out native vegetation and sucking up precious stream water. Unfortunately, these are just the tip of the invasive organism iceberg.
Why are foreign plants and animals so alarming? After all, half of the plants in our urban landscapes seem to be Asian, or Japanese, or South American in origin. Although many of these species grow tamely under human supervision and never cause any ecological alarm, others are more unruly. In a new home with few specialized pests or diseases, exotic plants and animals are free to change from mild-mannered to “Little Shop of Horrors” nightmares. In addition to the spread and increase of these unwanted pests, exotics often kill or crowd out native plants and animals, leading to irreparable losses of our natural heritage.
Take the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis. This native Asian beetle is currently terrorizing parts of the Midwest, mercilessly attacking and killing ash trees. It has already killed tens of millions of ash trees in southeastern Michigan, and tens of millions more in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Besides the heartbreak of seeing fifty year old trees die, the emerald ash borer is costing municipalities, property owners, nursery operators and forest products industries tens of millions of dollars. And it’s headed toward Texas.
One of the best weapons we have again invasive plants and animals is the Texas Invasives website. A product of the Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Council, this site documents many of the most important invasive plants and animals in Texas, or soon to arrive. It also provides invites anyone with interest a chance to sign up as a Citizen Scientist volunteer in the fight against these critters. I like to think of these volunteers as the Texas Rangers of the plant and pest world.
Emerald ash borer is one of the latest additions to the site. Colleague Dr. Charlie Helpert, and I have been on lookout duty for this pest for the past couple of years and are very excited about a new training module for EAB. Travis Gallo, Citizen Science Program Coordinator at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, recently posted a new EAB training module that can be used by Citizen Science volunteers and the public. In just a few minutes you can learn the basics about how to scout for and identify this new pest.
With millions of acres and thousands of miles of urban roadside, we can’t have too many people looking.
The website, says Gallo, is currently focused mainly on plants. But new sections on insects and other animals are in the process of being developed.
If you’re interested in the Citizen Science invasives program, please consider signing up. You have two options to join. The most fun track is to attend a Citizen Science Workshop. Workshops include classroom training about invasive species, GPS use, digital photography and reporting observations. If you don’t live close to a workshop location, or prefer to work alone, there’s a Voyageur Online training program. For more information on both, visit the Become a Citizen Scientist webpage.