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Great Lakes Article:

Exotic species threaten environment

Foreign invaders thriving in the U.S. wilds

July 26, 2002


WASHINGTON -- Walking catfish. Fruit bats. Red-whiskered bulbuls. Brown tree snakes. Brushtail possum. Chinese mitten crabs. Asian longhorn beetles. Zebra mussels. Round goby. Asian swamp eels.

The newly notorious snakehead fish is only the latest exotic foreign creature to threaten the U.S. environment enough to alarm federal officials.

"We talk a lot about endangered species, but, at the other end of the scale, invasive species" pose at least as great a danger, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said this week.

Like the snakehead, a rapidly reproducing Asian fish that can slither across land and eat virtually every small animal it encounters, the other threatening creatures thrive in the U.S. wilds where they have no natural predators. They can quickly upset the balance of nature. Indeed, these foreign invaders could hasten the extinction of some endangered species of native American animals, warned Norton.

As if that catalog of invaders was not enough, the government warned of a particularly nasty plant this week, prompted in part by an incident in Massachusetts that could have been the basis for a minor horror story.

The offending life form: a stinging, 15-foot-tall poisonous weed from Iran sighted in Massachusetts and found in about a half-dozen other states that packs a sap capable of causing acute pain, severe blisters, scarring and perhaps blindness.

"This thing looks like it's right out of the 'Little Shop of Horrors,' " said Richard Mytkowicz of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "Don't worry; it won't run after you and eat your children. But take it very seriously."

Several weeks ago, Doug and Nancy Roberts decided to hack away at the overgrowth on a recently purchased farm in Granville, a small town about 20 miles west of Springfield, Mass. Nancy attacked a "gigantic, ugly" weed with a small pruning knife, Doug Roberts said. A day or two later, she came down with "horrible, big huge blisters on her legs that have begun to scar," he said.

"I'll give the plant this much: It's impressively bold. It's also evil," said Craig Hollingsworth of the University of Massachusetts.

The sap of the plant contains furomarin, a chemical that destroys the skin's ability to block the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Cases of contact in England, where the weed is more common, have sent some children to the hospital with severe blistering. Although British scientific literature warns that the sap can blind if it gets in the eyes, U.S. scientists knew of no documented cases.

Setting down roots

The influx of intruders indicates how small the globe is getting, said Alan Tasker of the animal and plant health inspection division of the USDA.

"Pangea is what we called the clump of land before it split into continents," Tasker said. "The pace and frequency of international travel is turning us into another Pangea."

And once here, the intruders are hard to eradicate.

The Asian swamp eel, for example, has found a home around lakes, swamps and rivers in Florida and Georgia. Capable of breathing air and surviving cold and drought, the 3-foot-long eels have even become established near metro Atlanta, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The live eels were imported as a food and could have been released in the wild in an effort at fish farming. They are voracious predators and can slither across land if forced out of water. Uncontained, they could spread as far north as Virginia and Maryland, the agency said.

Kudzu, of course, is perhaps the Southern poster child of invasive plants. Native to China and Japan, kudzu was purposely introduced to United States at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In the 1930s, Southern farmers were urged to plant the ever-spreading vines to prevent soil erosion.

Since then, kudzu has taken over more than 7 million acres of land -- about 10,938 square miles -- and causes $100 million in damages a year to crops, forests and property in the South, the Wildlife Service reported.

Norton said the "celebrity of the snakehead" is focusing attention on the overall problem. The Bush administration wants to ban the importation and interstate transportation of the voracious Asian fish.

Other offenders

Among the other animals and plants whose importation is banned under the Lacey Act, which outlaws the importation of certain so-called injurious species and their transportation across state lines:

  • Zebra mussels. Native to the Caspian Sea and Ural River, the distinctively striped shellfish were probably brought to the Great Lakes through ballast water discharged by international freighters. They are capable of corroding wood, steel and concrete and fouling water intake pipes for industry and ship engines. They have spread across 20 states and are a big problem in Michigan waters.

  • Raccoon dogs. Native to woodlands of Russia, China and Japan, they are called tanuki in their homelands. An unusual canine, it is basically a dog that looks like a raccoon in markings and body structure. It eats whatever it can find -- rodents, lizards, frogs, ground birds, seeds, fruit, berries, insects, and spiders.

  • Asian longhorn beetles. Native to China, they have shiny black wings splotched with white, and blue feet and legs. In the United States, they first appeared in Brooklyn in 1996 and have since been found in Chicago. They probably arrived on wooden pallets made in China. "These beetles literally eat trees to death," the Wildlife Service warned.

  • Round goby. Native to Europe, these bottom-feeding fish have spread across the Great Lakes eating the eggs of bass, walleye and perch. Because they absorb toxic contamination such as PCBs, they pose risk to humans who consume them or other fish that ate the goby. They've been found in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, as well as Lake St. Clair.

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