Angling for a Laugh

Not-so-great Moments in Invasive Species History

by Scott Moeller

November 2010


Angling For a Laugh Archive

When it comes to water quality, the state of Minnesota takes non-native (exotic) species very seriously. There are stringent rules in place to prevent or control the spread of invasive exotics like Eurasian water millefoil, zebra mussels and Asian carp. Even potentially beneficial exotic species, like ones used for biological controls are rigorously tested, to be sure they aren’t a threat, before being released into the native environment.

But much of our current knowledge about the potential dangers of invasive species has come as a result of the past mistakes of others. As foolish as these mistakes may seem to us now, they provide valuable lessons that serve as the foundation for how we protect our environment from invasive exotics today.

Here now is a brief, lighthearted summary of some historically terrible moments in the annals of invasive species history. (Be warned that some are not as historically accurate as others -- see if you can spot them):

 

 

Date

Location

Link

Rabbits

October 1859 Winchelsea Victoria, Australia Rabbit
 

Description: Citing a lack of rabbits to shoot at, wealthy British landowner Thomas Austin asks his nephew to send him 12 gray rabbits from England, and subsequently releases the rabbits on his property. Within ten years, these 12 rabbits established a population numbering in the tens of millions that still plagues the continent to this day.

 

Date

Location

Link

Cane Toad

June 1935 Queensland, Australia Cane Toad
 

Description: Their senses clouded from stepping over heaps of rabbit carcasses for 75 years, the Australian sugarcane industry releases Hawaiian Cane Toads to help control native cane beetles. Ignoring the warnings of scientists and naturalists, 102 toads are released. The toads are unsuccessful at controlling the beetles, but are successful in proliferating to a population of 100’s of millions.

 

Date

Location

Link

House Sparrow

Spring 1850 Brooklyn, New York House Sparrow
 

Description: Desiring to establish wildlife familiar to European immigrants, Nicholas Pike, Director of the Brooklyn Institute, purchases 8 pairs of house sparrows from England for $200. He releases them into the city, but none survive. Never one to give up on a bad idea, Pike “kicks it up a notch,” buys another 25 sparrows, and releases them the following year, thus establishing the origins of one of the most abundant invasive bird species in the United States.

 

Date

Location

Link

European Starling

1890 Central Park, New York European Starling
 

Description: Not willing to be outdone in shortsighted foolishness by his contemporaries, Eugene Schieffelin releases 60 European starlings into the wilds of Central Park. A member of the American Acclimatization Society, Schieffelin and his colleagues specialize in the absolute inability to learn anything from the previous bad ideas of others, and strive to allow New Yorkers to “see all the birds mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare.” With such a worthy goal, we can surely excuse him for singlehandedly establishing the 200 million-strong population of one of the most destructive invasive bird species in North America.

 

Date

Location

Link

Hugh Grant

April 1994 Hollywood, California Four Weddings and a Funeral
 

Description: Hugh Grant is inadvertently transported to the United States by Andie McDowell. With few native competitors, the English actor quickly proliferates among romantic comedies, becoming a nearly permanent fixture in the genre, continuing to this day to be a disturbing presence for many American men.

 

Date

Location

Link

Smooth Brome

1884 California Smooth Brome
 

Description: The California Experiment Station imports Smooth Brome grass seed from Asia and distributes it across the United States to be used as forage and erosion control on farms and newly-constructed road ditches. The plants spread rapidly through aggressive underground rhizomes and seeds, signaling the beginning of the end for native tallgrass prairies throughout the Midwest.

 

Date

Location

Link

Zebra Mussel

Mid-1980's Great Lakes Zebra Mussel
 

Description: A European cargo ship captain discharges contaminated ballast water into the waters of the Great Lakes, releasing non-native zebra mussels. Initially discovered in 1988, the rapidly reproducing mussels easily attach themselves to rocks and vessels, and have since spread throughout all of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

 

Date

Location

Link

Common Carp

1872 Sonoma California, USA Common Carp
 

Description: J.A. Poppe imports just five specimens of common carp from Germany and allows them to reproduce in private ponds to sell for food. Five years later, the U.S. Fish Commission follows Poppe’s lead and begins importing and distributing live carp throughout much of the U.S. Many of these fish were stocked in farm ponds, but escaped to open waters with flood events. They are now found in nearly every state, and regarded as pests due to their impact on aquatic vegetation and water clarity.

 

Date

Location

Link

Bee Gees

December 14, 1977 Hollywood, California Wikipedia Bee Gees
 

Description: Just three members of a single family are all it takes to infest and alter the American cultural landscape. Helped by a man name Jonathan Travolta, the import of the Bee Gees from England results in the rapid proliferation of tight three-part harmonies and high falsetto-laced disco ballads that would grip the American landscape for years to come.

 

Date

Location

Link

Kudzu

1876 Pennsylvania Kudzu
 

Description: The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia includes a large garden filled with plants from Japan which include a flowering vine known as kudzu. Many years later, southern nurseries sell the live plant and, with the advent of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the US government’s own Soil Conservation Service promotes the planting of thousands of acres of kudzu for erosion control. The fast-growing vine now covers (literally) over 10 million acres throughout the southeast United States.

 

So, what’s the take-home message in all of this? First, it’s easy to poke fun and lay blame on past individuals and agencies who made these seemingly short-sighted decisions. It is largely from these huge mistakes, however, that we have learned how dangerous invasive species can be. Let’s not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, especially when it comes to our precious water resources here in Minnesota. Go to the MN DNR Invasive Species Website to educate yourself, and stay on top of invasive species issues.

Oh, and don’t ever pay more than $100 for a house sparrow.