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Albino Kingsnake and 6 Other Invaders Wreaking Havoc

Invasive albino kingsnakes are expanding throughout the Canary Islands, representing a huge threat to biodiversity, say experts who met this week to try to figure out how to stop the reptile.

With no natural predators, the kingsnakes—which are native to California—are growing bigger and badder, decimating local animal populations, including juvenile Gran Canaria giant lizards, which live only on the Canary Islands (map), a territory of Spain.

A photo of an albino California king snake.
An albino California kingsnake in April 2009. Photograph Nicolas Cégalerba, Biosphoto/Corbis

“Where the snakes are, most of the [young] lizards are missing,” said Robert Fisher, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher who’s taking part in the  discussions on the Canary Islands. (Read more about invasive species.) 

With its offspring absent, Fisher now calls Gran Canaria giant lizards “the living dead”—a population doomed to extinction.

Albino kingsnakes originally came to the islands as pets about 10 to 15 years ago and either escaped or were set free by their owners.

But there is hope: The reptiles aren’t yet entrenched in the environment, Fisher said, and governments are actively trying to find a solution. “You often don’t get that level of commitment until it’s too late,” he said.

As the world warms, the spread of such invaders is becoming increasingly common. For instance, adaptable species—including many weeds and pests, as well as cold-sensitive, invasive species like the Burmese python in Florida—are expanding their ranges, said Peter Alpert, a program director in environmental biology at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

Here are some more invaders that have gripped other parts of the globe.

Brown Tree Snakes

Guam’s native species had no snake predators before these Southeast Asian and Australian snakes were inadvertently introduced to the Pacific island after World War II.

A photo of a brown tree snake
A brown tree snake in its native habitat of North Maluku, Indonesia, in 2011. Photograph by Ch’ien Lee, Minden Pictures/Corbis

The reptiles have since eaten over half of Guam’s native species of birds and lizards and brought two-thirds of the bat species close to extinction, according to the USGS Institute for the Study of Invasive Species. (Related: “Drug-Filled Mice Airdropped Over Guam to Kill Snakes.”)

NSF’s Alpert calls it a “silencing of the forest.” To learn more about this altered ecosystem, NSF funds the Ecology of Bird Loss Project to study ways in which the absence of birds is affecting the rest of the ecosystem. For example, scientists want to know what happens to the plant life of the forest without the birds that once dispersed most of its seeds.

Cheatgrass

Cheatgrass came to the U.S. from Eurasia in packing materials in the mid to late 19th century. Its short life cycle and copious seed production make it able to spread quickly.

Sharon Gross, invasive species program manager for the USGS, said that cheatgrass and buffelgrass have altered ecosystems and fire dynamics in the American West.

“Cheatgrass is a very good fire fuel, and is often the first species to come back after a fire—in many cases preventing other native species from becoming reestablished,” she said.

Lionfish

This beauty is a beast. Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish were accidentally set loose in the Caribbean and waters off the southern U.S. in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew.

A photo of a lionfish.
A lionfish swims over a reef in the Red Sea. Photograph by Chris Newbert, Minden Pictures/Corbis

The fish have quickly become a problem for native animals: “It’s much bigger than the native reef fish and actively pushes them off the reefs,” Gross said. (Related pictures: “Sharks Taught to Hunt Alien Lionfish.”)

Plus, the fish have venomous dorsal fins and no known predators—besides, perhaps, humans. (See “Lionfish: Gotta Eat ‘Em to Beat ‘Em.”)

Asian Carp

Four species of carp—bighead, grass, black, and silver—fall under the label of Asian carp, which were introduced into U.S. waters in the 1970s to control weeds and parasites, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

Some got into the Mississippi River, and they’ve been on the move since, muscling out native fish, lowering water quality, and injuring people by jumping out of the water (as seen in this video) when startled by boat noise. (Related: “Invasive Asian Carp Found Breeding in Surprising Location.”)

Gross said the USGS and other agencies have been trying to develop a chemical capsule coated with an enzyme that is only digested by, and is toxic to, the invasive silver carp. The method would target the carp without delivering fatal substances to other species.

Cane Toad

In 1935 South American cane toads were released into North Queensland, Australia, to control beetles, a sugarcane pest, according to Australia’s Department of the Environment.

A photo of a cane toad.
A cane toad in its native Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, in 2011. Photograph by Cyril Ruoso, JH Editorial/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Instead the toads became the pests, secreting poison through their skin, thwarting would-be predators, and spreading their population westward. (See “Australia’s ‘Road Warrior’ Toads Get Arthritis.”)

“That’s the one that comes up in the textbooks of why it’s not always a good idea to introduce a non-native to kill another non-native,” Gross said.

Tell us: How would you handle invasive species?

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Comments

  1. Matt Chew
    AZ
    July 16, 12:13 pm

    Adult red lionfish DO have known predators in the Caribbean. There are many anecdotal accounts, and one published paper (DOI 10.1007/s00338-008-0372-9). Clearly the vast majority of larval lionfish do not reach adulthood, many almost certainly due to predation. This is virtually impossible to observe in the field but might be demonstrable in the laboratory, if anyone actually wanted to do that. Lionfish are showy, slow swimmers and highly edible. The opportunity to kill them is doubtless a tourist attraction in its own right, as demonstrated by the proliferation of competitions. A sustainable fishery at last?

  2. Robin Hauser Franklin
    United States
    July 13, 6:35 am

    Why aren’t we doing anything about starlings? They are a horrible invasive bird doing much damage to the numbers of song birds, bluebirds and woodpeckers. They can strip an acre of food in days.

  3. Something-Wicked
    Somewhere
    June 25, 6:19 pm

    Simple problem for snakes bring all male mongoose so they cant populate mongoose eat snakes like pizza. For frogs bring humans pay them 1$ a piece it will be endangered in no time. For carp bring some asians they eat carp like bread. Sure those carps will be extinct in no time.

  4. Sherrie J Graham
    Mercer MO
    June 14, 11:19 am

    We’re hunters and we have sessions. Time to establish open season on these tough guys. Get a licence to kill. It’s kill or be killed. If they’re loose in your neighborhood and everyone’s at risk.We have a problem. Reverse it. Thus isn’t one of those things that will go away if you ignore it long enough. Even the score. We have serious catching up to do. I’m sure it all taste like chicken. Teeheehee ;-)

  5. Ann
    June 11, 12:19 pm

    What are these animals immune to? Not immune to? Also, track each of the species so you can terminate them.

  6. Tom.jackson
    Miami
    May 28, 7:28 am

    Lionfish were not released “after hurricane Andrew” as you reported but were released in a probable string of individual events since they entered the trade in numbers since the 70s. I lived on Key Biscayne (before, during,and after hurricane Andrew) and there were no lionfish sightings off Key Biscayne after the storm. This has been an urban myth started by an unsubstantiated claim of a “release of a tank off Lionfish off Key Biscayne” which was later agreed to have never occurred. These are large predators and grow to a size able to consume many tank mates. Knowing that they are growing twice the size in the Atlantic as they have been recorded in the Pacific, the reason and risk of release is in fact intact and more robust.

  7. Green mamba
    Florida
    May 24, 11:23 am

    Hahaha just kidding, was just saying random stuff. Adam and Lee were totally right and i agree with them.

  8. The Green Mamba
    Florida
    May 24, 11:22 am

    Adam and Lee glass really need to look up the definition of invasive species: An invasive species is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. This means dangerous fish, snakes, ect. that people SMUGGLED in and have no natural predator and ruin the ecosystem. We were in this land WAY before people started bringing in Asian and other animals into U.S and releasing in the everglades and other fragile ecosystem. Humans can’t be an invasive species because we were here originally and just modified our environment. Environmental Determinism!!! or Possibism!!!! your comment would make sense if we were talking about worst comment’s ever. #YOUJUSTGOTRIPPED

  9. Adam P
    TN- USA
    May 12, 12:53 pm

    Great comment LEE GLASS. . . As you get in your car and drive back to your house in the middle of a suburban area.. . . . That used to be a forest. INVASIVE PERSON

  10. Liz Langley
    May 12, 11:47 am

    @Marie Fisher
    Interesting – Florida did a Python Challenge in 2013 where they offered cash prizes for the most & biggest burmese pythons in the Everglades: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/02/130219-florida-pythons-hunting-animals-snakes-invasive-science/

    They didn’t repeat it in 2014 though, saying the goal was to raise awareness and they felt that was accomplished. http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/11/16/Florida-says-Python-Challenge-hunt-was-a-one-off/UPI-45971384585281/

  11. John Bunch
    Sedley Virginia
    May 11, 1:08 pm

    And of course, the worst invasive species is Man

  12. LEE GLASS
    United States
    May 10, 7:32 pm

    EVERY TIME I HEAR ABOUT INVASIVE SPECIES, I THINK THAT HUMANS SHOULD BE ON THE TOP OF THE LIST.

  13. Marie Fisher
    San Diego
    May 10, 6:00 pm

    If the government sets a bounty, then it may be worth it for some to catch them and pull them from the island. It might even be fun in addition to profitable for kids

  14. Stephen
    May 10, 3:13 pm

    First of all, what are it’s weaknesses. Physical as well as biological. Can you attack there? If not, then does it have any natural enemies? If yes, proceed with caution. Don’t trade one pest for another. If no, then is it big enough for man to hunt in a sporting but “take no prisoners” manner. There now, we’ve got the idea factory running.

  15. kyle
    May 10, 2:29 pm

    Napalm.