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Invasive Species May Not Be All Bad: Scientists

An active debate among biologists about the role of invasive species in a changing world is going on

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Invasive Species
The invasive European green crab is tearing down ecosystems in Newfoundland and building them up on Cape Cod. VOA

Off the shores of Newfoundland, Canada, an ecosystem is unraveling at the hands (or pincers) of an invasive crab.

Some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to the south, the same invasive crab — the European green crab — is helping New England marshes rebuild.

Both cases are featured in a new study that shows how the impacts of these alien invaders are not always straightforward.

Around the world, invasive species are a major threat to many coastal ecosystems and the benefits they provide, from food to clean water. Attitudes among scientists are evolving, however, as more research demonstrates that they occasionally carry a hidden upside.

“It’s complicated,” said Christina Simkanin, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, “which isn’t a super-satisfying answer if you want a direct, should we keep it or should we not? But it’s the reality.”

Simkanin co-authored a new study showing that on the whole, coastal ecosystems store more carbon when they are overrun by invasive species.

Good news, crab news

Take the contradictory case of the European green crab. These invaders were first spotted in Newfoundland in 2007. Since then, they have devastated eelgrass habitats, digging up native vegetation as they burrow for shelter or dig for prey. Eelgrass is down 50 percent in places the crabs have moved into. Some sites have suffered total collapse.

That’s been devastating for fish that spend their juvenile days among the seagrass. Where the invasive crabs have moved in, the total weight of fish is down tenfold.

The loss of eelgrass also means these underwater meadows soak up less planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the same crab is having the opposite impact.

Off the coast of New England, fishermen have caught too many striped bass and blue crabs. These species used to keep native crab populations in check. Without predators to hold them back, native crabs are devouring the marshes.

But the invasive European green crab pushes native crabs out of their burrows. Under pressure from the invader, native crabs are eating less marsh grass. Marshes are recovering, and their carbon storage capacity is growing with them.

Invasive species
In this May 8, 2016 photo, eelgrass grows in sediment at Lowell’s Cove in Harpswell, Maine. VOA

Carbon repositories

Simkanin and colleagues compiled these studies and more than 100 others to see whether the net impact on carbon storage has been positive or negative.

They found that the ones overtaken by invasive species held about 40 percent more carbon than intact habitats.

They were taken by surprise, she said, because “non-native species are thought of as being negative so often. And they do have detrimental impacts. But in this case, they seem to be storing carbon quicker.”

At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where she works, the invasive reed Phragmites has been steadily overtaking a marsh scientists are studying.

Phragmites grows much taller, denser and with deeper roots than the native marsh grass it overruns.

But those same traits that make it a powerful invader also mean it stores more carbon than native species.

“Phragmites has been referred to as a Jekyll and Hyde species,” she said.

Not all invaded ecosystems stored more carbon. Invaded seagrass habitats generally lost carbon, and mangroves were basically unchanged. But on balance, gains from marsh invaders outweighed the others.

Invasive species
Phragmites plants growing on Staten Island draft in a breeze in the Oakwood Beach neighborhood of Staten Island. VOA

Not a lot of generalities

To be clear, Simkanin said the study is not suggesting it’s always better to let the invaders take over; but, it reflects an active debate among biologists about the role of invasive species in a changing world.

“One of the difficult things in the field of invasion biology is, there aren’t a lot of generalities,” said Brown University conservation biologist Dov Sax, who was not involved with the research. “There’s a lot of nuance.”

The prevailing view among biologists is that non-native species should be presumed to be destructive unless proven otherwise.

When 19 biologists wrote an article in 2011 challenging that view, titled, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” it drew a forceful rebuke from 141 other experts.

Sax said the argument is likely to become more complicated in the future.

Also Read: Climate Change Not A Hoax: Trump

“In a changing world, with a rapidly changing climate, we do expect there to be lots of cases where natives will no longer be as successful in a region. And some of the non-natives might actually step in and play some of those ecosystem services roles that we might want,” he said.

“In that context, what do we do? I definitely don’t have all the answers.” (VOA)

Next Story

CES Tech Show Proves Technology Puts Our Privacy At a Major Risk

To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test.

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Technology, Privacy
A model wears the Owlet Band pregnancy monitor at the Owlet booth at CES International, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. The device can track fetal heart rate, kicks and contractions. VOA

The latest gadgets want even greater access to your lives.

This week’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that can livestream the living room, a bathroom mirror that captures your face to offer beauty tips and a gizmo that tracks the heartbeat of an unborn child.

These features can be useful — or at least fun — but they all open the door for companies and people working for them to peek into your private lives. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave employees access to some customer video footage.

You’ll have to weigh whether the gadgets are useful enough to give up some privacy. First, you have to trust that companies making these devices are protecting your information and aren’t doing more than what they say they’re doing with data. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data. Or an ex might retain access to a video feed long after a breakup.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington professor who researches computer security and privacy.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process

Technology, Privacy
The new Door View Cam is on display at the Ring booth before CES International, Jan. 7, 2019, in Las Vegas. VOA

Amazon’s video feeds

As with other security cameras, Ring’s can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home to give you a peek, through an app, of who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into peepholes for apartment dwellers or college students who can’t install one next to their doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

Technology, Privacy
A smart home mockup is on display at the Tuya booth at CES International, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. VOA

Living room livestream

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products.

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel icky.

Wellcam says video isn’t recorded until someone activates it from a phone and video is deleted as soon as the stream stops. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera, unless you unplug it or cover it up with something.

Technology, home, Privacy
Yoon Lee, right, senior vice president, Samsung Electronics America, uses the Family Board on a refrigerator during a Samsung news conference at CES International in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Bathroom cameras

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror — making it more important that personal data is protected.

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need internet to work, she said. Even if it is connected, all data is stored on a local network. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information — such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon — but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

Samsung, Home, Privacy
Arvin Baalu, vice president of product management at Harman International, talks about the Samsung Digital Cockpit during a Samsung news conference at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Bodily data

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information.

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Also Read: Technology Makes Home Items Smarter But Creepier

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a pregnant belly and tracks the heartbeat. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And you can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy — potentially raising health risks and hence premiums. (VOA)