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Pandemics in Nature

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The beautiful purple loosestrife is an example of a non-native species that causes a pandemic loss of life in nature to natural species by crowding them out. Photo by Linda Wilson University of Idaho Bugwood.org.

When a species causes massive illnesses or deaths to members of another species, a pandemic is the result. Some that cause obvious and immediate economic harm receive widespread attention. The emerald ash borer that arrived in Detroit in 2002, spread rapidly killing ash trees in a widening radius. It cost communities, businesses, and private property owners billions of dollars. The financial burden gained human attention. 

The loss of an ash tree’s life did not result in the same concern caused by the loss of a human neighbor or family member to coronavirus. The death of people in China has not disturbed people in our region as much as the death of people in Washington state. People contracting the disease in Michigan created even higher concern. This is perhaps because we recognize the virus might personally make us ill or kill us. 

When the concern is not likely to kill us personally, we do not elevate actions immediately. The emerald ash borer spread as a pandemic through forests killing most ash trees. The beetle likely arrived in wood pallets and moved to live trees that had not developed evolutionary defenses. When native species are investigated and tested by other species, they develop defenses through co-evolution. One tries to feed on the new food source and the other tries to prevent being fed upon. If successful both survive by developing ecological adaptations. 

The sudden appearance of a species from another part of the world adapted to feed on a similar species, might find easy pickings when introduced to exploit a region like occurred with the ash borer. People lost trees in their yards, forests lost timber that could have been harvested, and cities found public land full of trees that presented public safety hazards. The general public took notice because of economic and safety concerns.

The loss of life of an individual tree in the yard does not bring a similar emotional response that comes with the death of a person dying next door. When the borer beetle pandemic spread, few people realized the impact on forest economics for other species. It closed the tree “restaurants” used by hundreds of other species similar to how human restaurants closed. Tree bark was home to mosses and lichens that lost their residence like business owners might lose their residences. 

People are not well attuned to the economic, social, environmental impacts that result from the successful establishment of exotic species. The stock market would fluctuate more greatly if we did. The American Chestnut blight caused economic harm and adversely affected businesses in the early 1900’s. Dutch elm disease in the 1950’s created similar devastation and had the added danger from DDT used to control the vector beetle that carried the killer fungus. Economic stress cannot be separated from environmental impacts that result in social harm that undermines community health and sustainability. Many economic woes can be traced to inadequate environmental policies. Sound environmental laws protect our economy and health.

Pandemic loss of native species is caused by more than diseases. Beautiful flowering species like purple loosestrife crowd other species from wetland habitats and remove ecosystem foundations essential for maintaining community health. Basically non-native loosestrife removes grocery stores, banks, apartments, construction warehouses, hardware stores, and pharmacies in wetland habitats needed by native species. Invasive species simplify the community and bring about instability. The long-term impact eventually harms human financial community health when we have not taken adequate care of environmental and social needs. 

Few exotic species have been addressed here. About 180 exotics are causing havoc in the Great Lakes and costs billions of dollars in damage to our economy. Two decades after zebra mussels were discovered in the Great Lakes, some scientists call the foreign mollusks the most harmful exotic species to invade the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. Zebra and quagga mussels have caused more profound changes in the lakes than sea lamprey that decimated lake trout and other native fish species in the mid-1900s. The mussels are two of 185 exotic species in the Great Lakes. About 120 of those species were imported by ocean ships that discharged ballast water from foreign ports into the lakes. Invasive species result in pandemic losses.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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