If you're like me, you spend a little time each day worrying about invasive species. If you're not like me, I've already lost you. Okay, so what, exactly, is an invasive species?
Well, I'm glad you asked. An invasive species is a plant or animal that has been transported (in almost all cases, by human activity) from the environment in which it evolved, to a different, non-native environment.
In some cases, the invasive species is moved to an environment that is so similar to the environment where it evolved, that it can easily survive in the new place. And often enough, there are no predators capable of preying on it in the new place, and therefore no way to keep it in check.
When that happens, the invasive species tends to run amok. It multiplies uncontrollably, preys on others, and tends to alter the natural environment, reducing it to a wasteland of extinct and nearly-extinct native species.
Yes, I know. To believe in the concept of an invasive species, you kind of have to believe in evolution. Be that as it may, just hang in there, okay? Here comes the fun part:
|A Burmese Python captured in a swimming pool in a suburb of Miami, Florida. Burmese Pythons are native to Southeast Asia. In Florida, they are an invasive species.|
The Burmese Python
I spend a lot of time in South Florida. So much time, that in a sense, you could almost say I live there.
As a result, the invasive species I most often think about is the Burmese Python. The Burmese Python is a snake that can grow to about 25 feet long. That's too big. It is a top-level predator that will eat most any other animal. Few animals alive can kill it.
Sometime in the 1980s, some Burmese Pythons got loose in the Florida Everglades. In all likelihood, a very dull-witted person was keeping them as pets, and decided they were too much hassle to deal with, so let them go.
Sometime around the year 2000, wildlife scientists began to notice, "Hey, there's really a lot of pythons loose in the Everglades." By then it was already too late to do anything about it.
Now there are somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000 of them, and they have wiped out nearly the entire small mammal population of the Everglades. The only predator that can kill them is the alligator, and in a one-on-one battle, the python is just as likely to kill and eat the alligator as the other way around.
What makes the Burmese Python such a ferocious competitor in a non-native environment like Florida?
- It evolved in Southeast Asia, which is somewhere hot and wet, with dense foliage, just like the Everglades;
- It is adaptable and resilient - despite the fact that the Everglades experiences cold snaps from time to time, the python has proven able to weather these;
- It will eat just about anything;
- It grows very large, very quickly, making it invulnerable to all but the largest and most dangerous predators. Its mouth and throat can open so wide, that a large python can eat an 8-foot adult alligator;
- It multiplies rapidly - mothers give birth every two years, to between 20 and 50 baby snakes each time;
- It lives a long time - up to 20 years, meaning a single mother can potentially give birth to anywhere from 200 to 500 babies;
- It hides in the daytime, making it hard for humans to find and kill it. In 2013, an organized, month-long hunt with 1,600 people killed only 68 pythons.
The Burmese Python is in Florida to stay. That much is agreed upon. The major effort now is to keep it from spreading beyond the Everglades.
|Two nasty predator babies playing on the floor. The Burmese Python and the Human Being.|
Human Beings - the Case for Invasion
If you take the long view of human activity, you begin to see that people have an awful lot in common with the Burmese Pythons living in Florida.
- We appear to have evolved somewhere that is similar to Planet Earth, in the sense that we thrive easily in the environment here;
- We are adaptable and resilient, and are able to live in all but the most extreme climates;
- We eat just about anything;
- We multiply rapidly;
- We live a long time, giving us ample opportunity to reproduce numerous times;
- As a group, we are invulnerable to all predators on Earth - on an individual basis, we do get eaten once in a while;
- Relatively quickly, we have out-competed just about every other animal on Earth. We have altered the natural environment, leaving behind a wasteland of extinction;
- We have wiped out or nearly wiped out countless native species, and have put ourselves on a collision course with events that could destroy our own civilization, and potentially, all life on Earth;
- Here is an important point - we do this, and continue to do it, even though it is in our own best interest to stop. We even seem to want to stop, but we can't.
We are helpless in the face of our destruction of other animals, and the natural environment in general. We are completely out of balance with the place where we live. Just like the Burmese Python, we do what comes naturally, and everything else is victimized by us as a result.
And this is probably because we don't belong here.
|Earth - a long way from our home.|
How Did We End Up Here?
One of the hardest things about being human is we don't know much about our past.
Oh, we know there were civilizations in the Middle East which began maybe 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. And we know cave people had tattoos 10,000 years ago, and were making art as far back as 50,000 years ago.
Sort of. We sort of know these things. We think we do. And we think we know that we've been around in something like our current form at least 200,000 years, and possibly up to 2 million years.
But we really have no idea. How could we? No one currently alive was there.
What if this happened instead:
What if an advanced intelligence (for example, aliens from outer space) brought us here, either accidentally or on purpose, and left us here? Gradually, we out-competed the native species, supplanting and wiping them out, and laying waste to the natural environment in the process.
This is more or less exactly what happened to the Burmese Python, and any number of other invasive species - the feral pig in the southeastern United States, the kudzu plant in the same region, the brown tree snake in Guam, and many others.
They were all brought somewhere new by an advanced intelligence - us. Once they arrived, they multiplied out of control, and pushed all the native species out.
What if this is us? It's hard to imagine because normally, we like to think of ourselves as the good guys. In fact, one of the things that makes us so insidious is our tendency to explain our behavior in glowingly positive terms.
But what if, and this seems likely, we are an invasive species? And now we are in the endgame of a long process of adaptation, and relentless, unstoppable multiplication and habitat destruction?
What if, just like the Burmese Python, we are a problem that has no solution?
What would be the correct response in such a situation?