Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Can't live with'em can't live without 'em.

Biologists and Ecologists have (mostly) learned to give at least some forethought to the consequences of introducing non-native species. The problems invasive species cause are often most sever on islands, where the native species often have limited evolutionary experience dealing with the relative of the invaders. For example, many island endemic bird species were flightless, as there were no land based predators to need to fly away from, so why bother building all that expensive escape equipment when there is nobody to escape from. Other island nesting birds, like those on Macquarie Island can fly (except the penguins) but don't seem to have the right tricks in their behavioral repertoires to escape from introduced predators.

A recent attempt to help these birds is making ecologists aware that one has to be very careful not only about introducing invasive species, but also about removing them. A commentary in Nature describes the story:

Cats were introduced to the Macquarie Island in 1818; sealers introduced rabbits 60 years later.

The rabbits tore through the island's vegetation. In 1968, the rabbit flea was introduced. Once that had established the lethal myxomatosis virus — which the flea spreads — was introduced in 1978.

Rabbit numbers crashed, but then the cats, which had previously eaten rabbits, switched their attentions to the island's birds.

But once the cats were gone, the few hardy rabbits that had survived both the cats and the myxomatosis emerged and began doing what rabbits do best — breeding and eating.

So the island has cats, rabbits, rabbit fleas, rabbit viruses as well as rats and mice, all introduced. The cats were bad for the birds because they ate them. The rabbits were introduced and were bad for the birds because they destroyed the vegetation, but good in that they distracted the cats. And the cats were at least partly good for the birds, because they ate the rabbits. Some kind of unstable plateau was reached. And then disease was introduced to reduce the rabbit population, leaving a whole bunch of hungry cats, which were bad for the birds. But then the cats were killed off, which was bad for the birds and everything else (except the rabbits, rats and mice) because for the first time there were rabbits without cats on the island. The rabbits, unchecked, ate through most of the island's plants. And this, of course, is a vast over simplification.

The Australian authorities who run Macquarie Island are now trying to figure out how to exterminate the rabbits, rats and mice without harming other native populations, such as the seals and sea lions that breed on the island. They estimate it will take tens of millions of dollars, and that may be optimistic. Few efforts to irradicate rodents from any land mass of decent size have succeeded. Macquarie Island, at 128 km², offers a lot of hiding places big enough for a rat. Miss one pregnant rat and in just few years you are back to square one. And who knows what effect the rats would have without rabbits around harboring disease and eating potential cover? Rats eat bird eggs, and have been known to finish off large bird colonies in just a few years.

The lesson learned is that just because introducing species is generally bad, removing those introduced species from an ecosystem that has started to adjust to their input isn't always good. At least it has to be done very carefuly.

No comments: