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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.

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“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

Scientists Take Peek Behind Those Sad Puppy Dog Eyes and Find a Unique Muscle

Pooches use the muscle to raise their eyebrows and make the babylike expression

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Scientists, Sad, Puppy
FILE - Lexy, a therapy dog, is seen at Fort Bragg, N.C., Feb. 18, 2014. A study released June 17, 2019, suggests that over thousands of years of dog domestication, people preferred dogs that could pull off the "puppy dog" eyes look. VOA

What’s behind those hard-to-resist puppy dog eyes?

New research suggests that over thousands of years of dog domestication, people preferred pups that could pull off that appealing, sad look. And that encouraged the development of the facial muscle that creates it.

Today, pooches use the muscle to raise their eyebrows and make the babylike expression. That muscle is virtually absent in their ancestors, the wolves.

“You don’t typically see such muscle differences in species that are that closely related,” said Anne Burrows of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, an author of the study released Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists, Sad, Puppy
FILE – A female red wolf emerges from her den sheltering newborn pups at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C., May 13, 2019. VOA

Dogs differ from wolves in many ways, from having shorter snouts, smaller sizes and more expressive faces. And unlike wolves, dogs heavily rely on human eye contact, whether to know when someone’s talking to them or when they can’t solve a problem, like hopping a fence or getting out the door.

Burrows and her colleagues examined the eye muscles in the cadavers of six dogs and two wolves. They found dogs have a meaty eye muscle to lift their eyebrows and make puppy dog eyes. But in wolves, the same muscle was stringy or missing.

The scientists also recorded 27 dogs and nine wolves as each stared at a person. Pet pooches frequently and intensely pulled back their eyebrows to make sad expressions, while the wolves rarely made these faces, and never with great intensity.

The researchers believe dogs, over their relatively short 33,000 years of domestication, used this eye muscle to communicate, possibly goading people to feed or care for them — or at least take them out to play. And people, perhaps unwittingly, obliged.

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‘Profound’ implications

Dog experts not involved with the study were impressed.

“The implications are quite profound,” said Brian Hare from Duke University, who edited the article. Hare wrote in an email that these muscles almost certainly developed because they gave dogs an advantage when interacting with people, and people have been unaware of it.

“The proof has been in their puppy dog eyes all this time!” he said.

Scientists, Sad, Puppy
Over thousands of years of dog domestication, people preferred pups that could pull off that appealing, sad look. Pixabay

Evan MacLean at the University of Arizona called the findings fascinating, but cautioned that the muscle difference could be an indirect effect of other changes rather than a specific response to human influence.

Clive Wynne of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University said: “Kudos to the researchers for thinking of a cool way to investigate an important aspect of dogs’ success” with humans.

But he noted in an email that the study has a few snags, particularly the small sampling — only five dog breeds were examined and videos were mainly of Staffordshire bull terriers — and the lack of background information about each animal.

“Did these wolves regularly meet people bearing gifts that might be worth asking for with an endearing face?” he asked.

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Burrows said she planned follow-up studies to examine more breeds. (VOA)