From non-native bluegrass in Antarctica to beautiful spotted bugs in the middle of NYC, here are 5 invasive species that are as stunning as they are threatening to humanity

The spotted lanternfly, a hopping bug native to China, was first detected in the US in 2014.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Invasive species are costing the world more than $423 billion annually, according to a UN report. 
From New York to Antarctica, non-native plants and wildlife are popping up more frequently — and we’re contributing to the problem.
Here are 5 of the most obvious examples of how invasive species are impacting all of us right now.

From Antarctica to New York City, invasive species are becoming an increasingly rampant problem around the world — and we are directly contributing to it.

A United Nations report from Monday details how humans have unleashed more than 37,000 invasive species into new territories, where they are crushing the competition and threatening the future of humanity as we know it.

“I know this is going to sound grandiose,” Peter Stoett — an Ontario Tech University professor who co-authored the new UN report along with 85 other experts from 49 different countries around the globe — told the Washington Post before calling the specter of invasive species a “tremendous threat” to all of “human civilization.” 

Since 1970, the cost of invasive species invasions has quadrupled every decade, and this new report estimates that they’re now costing the world more than $423 billion each year, an estimate which Stoett qualified as “extremely conservative.” 

It’s not just money we’re losing. Scientists say invasive species are one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide (alongside other environmental issues like pollution and climate change). The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the body which created the report, said, “The severe global threat posed by invasive alien species is underappreciated, underestimated, and often unacknowledged,” as it impacts everything from our drinking water, to food availability, and mosquito breeding opportunities.  

If you are still in any doubt, here are five obvious ways you can physically see the threat of invasive species playing out in real-time.

Spotted lanternflies from China are jumping all over the East Coast

Spotted lanternflies eyeing the New York City skyline from in New Jersey (August 2023).

Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Spotted lanternflies, native to China, were first spotted in the US in 2014 in the state of Pennsylvania.

Since then, the US Department of Agriculture has recorded them traveling to at least 13 more states, including New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Ohio.

Lanternflies and their eggs are great hitchhikers, and humans are helping them thrive in the eastern US

Spotted lanternfly eggs attached to a tree at Inwood Hill Park in New York City (September 26, 2022).

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Scientists at Cornell University suspect that the main reason lanternflies haven’t been stamped out yet in the US is because they are constantly being accidentally transported by people, whether by flying into their cars or hitching a ride on wood that then gets moved around.  

Without human help, lanternflies have a jumping and flying range of only about three to four miles. 

The recent fires in Maui were also fueled by a non-native invasive grass species

US President Joe Biden surveyed fire damage from above Maui in Marine One on August 21, 2023.

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Guinea grass is “kind of everywhere you go, unfortunately,” O’ahu’s Waimea Valley Volunteer Coordinator Melani Spielman said in a YouTube video posted earlier this year.

“It’s that super tall grass you see all along the roadsides, up in the mountains,” she said.

As we saw with the deadly wildfires that ravaged Maui last month, killing people and wildlife, this tall grass can propel fires. In turn, it helps kill off more native species that are not so fire-adapted. I

Beyond fire dangers, it’s also got little bitty hairs at the base of the plant that can aggravate your skin if you rub up against it. Some people call it “green panic grass.”

Tall Guinea Grass is local to parts of Africa and the Middle East, and it was introduced to Hawaii in the 1700s

The grass is native to parts of Africa and the Middle East, including this chimpanzee’s home in Somoria, Guinea.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ranchers living in Hawaii brought the grass there because it was a drought-resistant way to make sure their animals stayed fed. 

It’s important to stress that most non-native and introduced plants are not invasive. The authors of the new UN report estimate that only about 6% of non-native plants and 11% of non-native microbes are invasive species. 

However, invasive species are an outsized driver of animal and plant extinctions, contributing to over half (60%) of them. 

The most widespread invasive species worldwide is a pretty, purple-flowered water plant from South America

Flowering water hyacinths are native to Brazil.

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

 

From lakes in Kenya to the waters of Bangladesh and the US state of Florida, the water hyacinth — native to South America — has caused serious problems for fishermen locally.

It can block entire waterways, crowding out other plants, and it makes a great breeding ground for mosquitoes. 

Zebra mussels from Europe have threatened drinking water and power plants in the US Great Lakes region since they were introduced in the 1980s

Zebra mussels near Lake Ontario in Canada.

Kilian Fichou/AFP via Getty Images

Zebra mussels are great at latching on to almost anything, from a boat propeller to a rock, and they outcompete local mussels in the Great Lakes region.

Experts think that zebra mussels were probably introduced to North America when big boats traveling from Europe discharged water from across the Atlantic.

Now, the mussels regularly clog pipes at power plants, resulting in millions of dollars of damage. They once forced a water pump supplying drinking water to 50,000 Michigan residents to shut down. 

Even Antarctica isn’t safe from the threat of invaders like a non-native bluegrass

Poa annua is an annual bluegrass species native to Eurasia.

Hu Weibin/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Scientists are worried that as the poles warm, invasive grasses like the common Eurasian bluegrass called “poa annua” could crowd out the local grasses in Antarctica entirely, killing them off forever.

But experts assure that we can take preventative measures. 

“The good news is that, for almost every context and situation, there are management tools, governance options, and targeted actions that really work,” said Anibal Pauchard, a professor from the University of Concepción, in Chile, who co-chaired the new UN report.

“Prevention is absolutely the best, most cost-effective option — but eradication, containment, and control are also effective in specific contexts.” 

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