Pest control resources fell as anti-terrorism efforts rose

The United States “war on terrorism” mobilized the federal government to take action to prevent a recurrence of the events of 9/11/01. Ten years and just over a month later, efforts that span two presidential administrations have led to a country that is more secure against one of Earth’s most dangerous species: humans. Unfortunately, an unwanted side effect has been a jump in the infiltration into the U.S. of countless other species that pose an entirely different kind of threat. A recent analysis by the Associate Press (AP), found that in the years since 9/11, scientists that were once responsible for curbing the entry of invasive species at U.S. borders have been reassigned to anti-terrorism efforts after the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), established under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296). In 2003, as laid out in the bill’s provisions, many APHIS agricultural border inspectors were transferred from the Department of Agriculture to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a result, the number of pest cases intercepted at U.S. ports of entry fell from over 81,200 in 2002 to less than 58,500 in 2006. The numbers have since steadily risen again after complaints from farm industry and lawmakers. As highlighted in a recent EcoTone post, invasive species can be serious burden on the economy as clean up costs for individual species can number anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The AP article notes that the most problematic overseas imports are fruits, vegetables and spices, which can carry insects, their larvae or contagions capable of decimating crops. The article states that crop-threatening species has spiked from eight in 1999 to at least 30 in 2010. The Center for Invasive Species Research (CISR) reports that since 1991, the silver-leaf whitefly has cost an estimated $500 million to California agriculture, translating to “roughly $774 million in private sector sales, 12,540 jobs and $112.5 million in personal income.” Nationally, the fly’s damage has been estimated to be in excess of $1 billion.  CISR also found that the red palm weevil, first identified in the United States in August 2010, poses a “serious threat” to ornamental palm tree sales, which contribute $70 million to the California economy and $127 million to the Florida economy each year. A recent study found that wood boring insects, such as the Asian long-horn beetle, reportedly cost more than $3.5 billion in losses, including $1.7 billion to local governments, $1.59 billion to homeowners, $130 million to forest landowners and $92 million to the federal government. The same study concluded there is a 32 percent...

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Mississippi floods out humans and wildlife

In late April, two major storm systems across the Mississippi River watershed brought about one of the most catastrophic floods upon the Delta region in generations. Thousands of homes have had to be evacuated and there have been a number of deaths. President Barack Obama has declared bordering counties in Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky as federal disaster areas. The flooding along the Mississippi River has also sparked a great migration among the numerous species of wildlife. In one of the worst cases of overflow since the Great Depression, the Mississippi River has flooded three million acres across Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. The Mississippi River has the third-largest drainage basin in the world, absorbing 41 percent of the drainage from the 48 contiguous United States, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The massive river covers more than 1,245,000 square miles. According to the National Weather Service, a number of cities are currently experiencing record flood levels. In Natchez, Mississippi, the water now stands at 58.3 feet, shattering the 1937 watermark of 53.04 feet. In Memphis, the Mississippi crested May 9 at 47.8 feet, just under a foot below the city’s record, set in 1937. A wide range of wildlife is on the move, trying to escape the rising waters.  Animals such as deer have been frequently spotted swimming across stretches of water in search of higher ground. Wild turkeys, which nest this time of year, have lost nesting spots and hatchlings to the floodwaters. Other creatures swept up in the floodwaters include alligators, spiders, rats and even fire ants. Venomous water moccasins have been reportedly appearing everywhere from residential trees to yard porches and sheds. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, it is also mating season for the water moccasins, making the reptiles more aggressive than usual. The Tennessee government has issued a press statement advising residents to avoid the displaced snakes and offering tips on how to treat snake bites. However, some species may benefit from the floods. Biologists have noted that flood waters, which wash increased amounts of worms and insects into the water, provide extra food to fish such as catfish, common carp, bluegill and crappie. However, an aggressive non-native species, the Asian carp, is also expected to flourish. Contamination of the water is also a concern, with the Tennessee and Mississippi State Departments of Health warning residents to steer clear of the water for health reasons.  The greater Mississippi River is expected to contain a number of contaminants, from trash and farm runoff to untreated raw sewage and chemicals. Testing performed by ABC News found E. coli and coliform at 2,000 times the...

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Snow fleas: helpful winter critters

As the Northeast of the United States was hammered by thundersnow this week, students, parents and perhaps those working from home had the opportunity to indulge in outdoor winter activities. For many, being in the snow again is losing its luster. As an Associated Press article noted, “The Northeast has already been pummeled by winter not even halfway into the season. The airport serving Hartford, Conn., got a foot of snow, bringing the total for the month so far to 54.9 inches and breaking the all-time monthly record of 45.3 inches, set in December 1945.” However, those who are venturing outside might discover that snow forts and shovels are not the only things littering the fresh snow. At close examination, perhaps in melting snow around the base of a tree, tiny black flecks might be found sprinkled in the snow. They probably look like bits of dirt at first glance, but they are actually tiny soil animals known as snow fleas. Officially, they are called springtails and are not actually fleas (or even technically insects). On any given summer day, hundreds of thousands of springtails can populate one cubic meter of top soil; at 1-2 mm, they largely go unnoticed by people. In the winter, however, two species of dark blue springtails— Hypogastrura harveyi and Hypogastrura nivicol—can be easily spotted against the white backdrop of snow. These hexapods may have acquired the nickname of snow fleas due to their ability to jump great distances, a feat fleas boast as well. Whereas fleas use enlarged hind legs, springtails have a tail-like appendage called a furcula that unfolds to launch the hexapods great distances. But unlike fleas, springtails are not parasites; they feed on decaying organic matter in the soil (such as leaf litter) and, therefore, play an important part in natural decomposition. Snow fleas in particular are able to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter thanks to a “glycine-rich antifreeze protein,” as reported in a study published in Biophysical Journal. The protein in the snow fleas binds to ice crystals as they start to form, preventing the crystals from growing larger. In addition, by isolating this protein, researchers have been able to study the medical potential of its structure. Specifically, Brad Pentelute from the University of Chicago and colleagues suggested the possible applications of this protein in safely preserving organs for human transplantation. LIN, F., GRAHAM, L., CAMPBELL, R., & DAVIES, P. (2007). Structural Modeling of Snow Flea Antifreeze Protein Biophysical Journal, 92 (5), 1717-1723 DOI: 10.1529/biophysj.106.093435 Photo Credit (distance snow fleas): Jean-Sébastien Bouchard Photo Credit (snow flea close-up): Daniel Thompkins As the Northeast of the United States was hammered...

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From the Community: December Edition

The following links highlight ecology from the month of December, but there are several science-related end-of-year lists floating around as well.

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Insect-eating not (just) for the birds

Nutritious, chemical-free and all-natural, insects are featured as the main protein several Latin American, Asian and African countries. For example, in the Santander region of Colombia, leaf-cutter ants (called “hormigas culonas”) are sometimes eaten roasted, salted and have a slightly acidic taste. Mopane worms—the caterpillar for the moth Gonimbrasia belina—are popular in Botswana and are served dried or rehydrated with sauces and other ingredients.

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Biodiversity is a delicate recipe

Picture a simmering pot of vegetable broth, the condensed flavors the basis for what will become a hearty corn chowder. Looking at the recipe, you know that before the broth was introduced, onions and garlic were sautéed in olive oil until they grew translucent. Then flour was added to form the roux. And you know after the broth is added, potatoes, corn and other assorted vegetables will be left to simmer. But would you have known all of this just by seeing the list of ingredients alone? Unless you enjoy cooking regularly, you probably would not have known the sequence for preparing corn chowder just by the taste. According to a study recently published in Science Express, biodiversity is a similar process. Some scientists go about recreating an ecosystem by adding all of the elements at once into an experiment. The results, however, usually do not replicate the original ecosystem that the researchers were trying to reproduce. Jon Chase from Washington University sought to find out why two ecosystems with the same amount of nutrients and number of organisms could have completely different outcomes. In other words, why does biodiversity vary in ecosystems that have the exact same “ingredients”? The answer, it seems, is in the order in which they are introduced. Chase placed 45 Rubbermaid cattle tanks in a field and added pond water and soil to each. He then introduced nutrients—such as nitrogen and phosphorous—in varying amounts to create a range of productivity. Finally, he collected a number of species (specifically, “zooplankton from each of 15 ponds, 30 insects and small invertebrates such as snails, 9 vascular aquatic plants and 12 kinds of filamentous green algae,” according to a National Science Foundation press release) from nearby ponds to create a species pool. Each year, for three years, Chase introduced a random selection of species from the species pool, but he kept track of what went where. That is, each container received the exact same number of species, just introduced randomly in three segments of time. Chase found that the low productivity mini-ponds all turned out the same in terms of biodiversity. The high productivity ponds, on the other hand, developed into several different ecosystems. It turns out, said Chase, that the sequence of introducing species to the “ponds” with high nutrient levels mattered for its subsequent biodiversity. Chase described the process in a press release: “In our pond study we eliminated physical variations and so the beta diversity that emerged was most likely a result of priority effects.” Priority effects show that different arrival times of species could determine species dominance in an ecosystem. He continued, “Priority...

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