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11 Invasive Species Wreaking Havoc Around the World

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Invasive species are bad news. They compete with native critters for food, destroy local ecology and, in some cases, are even dangerous to humans. And thanks to the increasingly global nature of our world, there are more and more animals discovered where they don’t belong every year. Here are just a few pests that have hitched rides to distant shores, where they’re currently wreaking havoc.

1. Cane Toad (Bufo marinus)

The cane toad (top) is perhaps the most infamous invasive species. Native to Central and South America, it has been imported to a number of places—Florida, the Phillippines, some Japanese islands, most islands in the Caribbean, and Hawaii, among other places—by farmers who hoped the creatures would wipe out local pests. Instead, they got another kind of pest, one that’s much harder to get rid of. The cane toad is huge—the biggest, captured in 2007, was over 8 inches long and weighed nearly two pounds—and voracious, gobbling up many native species.

The toxins in the cane toad's skin often kill animals that try to eat it (except for those animals who seem to deliberately get high by licking the toads), and it puts rabbits to shame with its reproductive capabilities; each female lays thousands of eggs each year. Case in point: Australia. In 1935, 102 cane toads were introduced to combat the Greyback Cane beetle. By 2010, that number had ballooned to 1.5 billion toads spread over 386,100 square miles, and they show no signs of stopping.

The toads are hardy, too: they’ve been spotted coming out of brush fires or hopping away after being run over. One toad even survived being eaten by a dog, which threw up the perfectly-fine toad 40 minutes later.

2. Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus)

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You’ll recognize this nasty bug, number four on the list of 100 worst invasive species, by the black and white markings on its body and legs. Native to Asia, it has spread to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the United States—first in Hawaii in the 1800s, and then the continental U.S. in 1985, when it hitched a ride from Japan in a shipment of tires. Unlike most other mosquito species, the highly-adaptable Asian Tiger is active during the day, and lays its eggs either near stagnant water or in fresh running water. To nourish her eggs, the female feeds off of humans, birds and other animals with a rapid bite that allows her to eat and fly before she can be swatted.

The mosquito is a carrier of West Nile virus and dengue fever, among other diseases dangerous to people. Scientists in South America are experimenting with genetically modified versions of the males—which, when released into the wild, live just long enough to mate and pass on a lab-tweaked gene that kills the larvae shortly after they hatch—though the plan to introduce those modified bugs in Key West has been met with some protest.

3. Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus)

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Burmese pythons, native to Southeast Asia, came to the United States in the 1990s as part of the international pet trade. When those pets escaped their enclosures or were released into the wild, they bred, and the first established populations were reported in 2000. These massive snakes, which grow to an average of 12 feet (although larger ones have been found, and the snakes can grow to 20 feet in captivity), are eating their way through native species throughout Florida. Scientists believe they could eat Florida panthers, and at least one has tried to eat an alligator (albeit unsuccessfully: the snake exploded). It’s now illegal to import the snakes into the U.S. without a permit.

4. Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys)

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If you live in certain portions of the United States, you might notice ugly, shield-like insects crawling and buzzing around your house. Squish or swat at them, and you’ll to get a noseful of foul stench. These obnoxious little pests are brown marmorated stink bugs. Native to Eastern Asia, they were first discovered in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1998, but likely arrived in shipping crates a few years before that. Since then, the bugs have spread to 34 states in the Northeastern U.S., the mid-Atlantic region and the Pacific Northwest. Halyomorpha halys eats almost anything it can get its proboscis on including apples, pears, soybeans, green beans, raspberries and cherries. And they’re destructive: In 2010, 18 percent of the mid-Atlantic apple crop was destroyed by the bugs. Brown marmorated stink bugs have few natural predators here, but scientists are exploring releasing non-stinging parasitoid wasps to help keep the stinkers in check. Researchers have also figured out where bugs that don’t come into your house spend the winter, which they hope will help control the population.

How do you get them out of your house? Bide your time. When it warms up, these stink bugs leave on their own. And, thankfully, they don’t lay eggs or nest in your walls—all of that behavior happens outside.

5. Asian Carp

The National Invasive Species Information Center lists four different species of Asian carp that have made their way into U.S. waters from Eurasia, where they compete with native species for food. One species, the silver carp, can also be dangerous to humans: The fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, are easily frightened by boats and frequently jump out of the water—sometimes onto people. According to a 2007 EPA report, “injuries include cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.” Some species have spread across the U.S.; it’s now illegal to import them without a permit.

6. Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica)

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These clumsy fliers, native to Japan, probably came to the U.S. in a shipment of iris bulbs before 1912, when commodities inspections began. They were discovered in a Riverton, New Jersey, nursery in 1916 and have since spread as far as Idaho. The Japanese Beetle munches on 200 types of plants, including birch trees, rose bushes, grapes, and hops, consuming the leafy material between the veins.

7. Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha)

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The Zebra Mussel, native to Eurasia, came to North America in ship ballast water. They were first detected in the Great Lakes in 1988, and have spread like crazy since then. These tiny pests—which range from about the size of a fingernail to 2 inches in length—compete with native species for food, but they’re a headache for humans, too: They clog pipes and attach themselves to locks and dams. Dealing with the creatures costs millions of dollars a year.

8. Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta)

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If there’s one thing you don’t want to do, it’s accidentally stumble on a fire ant mound: These insects, native to South America, will swarm up your leg and sting in concert. Their venom, which contains a necrotizing alkaloid, isn’t typically strong enough to kill a person, but those stings hurt—a lot. The fire ant was introduced to the United States in the 1930s when it hitched a ride in ships’ ballast and has become a pest across the south. (There are also invasive populations in Taiwan and Australia.) Because they’re aggressive and extremely resilient—fire ants can survive both floods (by balling up into an ant raft) and droughts—they’re wiping out many native ants and lizard species; their mounds also destroy plant roots.

Stopping the invasion might seem impossible, but another non-native species might be able to help. In 1999, scientists released Phorid flies, imported from Brazil and Argentina, that lay eggs inside the fire ants. Their larvae eat the ant from the inside, and eventually pop out at the joint of the thorax and the head, decapitating the ant—and the new fly goes on to repeat the process.

9. Northern Snakehead Fish (Channa argus)

Photo Courtesy Virginia Tech

National Geographic didn’t call the Northern Snakehead “Fishzilla” for nothing: This species, native to China, can grow up to 40 inches long, has rows of slender, villiform teeth, and can breathe air—and, therefore, migrate over land. They have no predators outside their native habitat. The Northern Snakehead was first discovered in the U.S. in a pond in Maryland in 2002, where a man had released a pair of fish he had bought from a market in New York.

10. Asian Longhorn Beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis)

The so-called starry sky beetle might look pretty, but it’s also pretty destructive: It bores into both healthy and stressed maples and other hardwoods, weakening and killing the trees. Found in Brooklyn, New York in 1996, where it came in a shipment from Asia, this pest is currently in five states and threatens many others. The beetle also threatens trees in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK.

11. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

You’ve seen them: the huge flocks of extremely noisy birds that alight from a tree, all at once, in a huge black cloud. These are European starlings, which were intentionally introduced in 1890 as part of a plan to bring to the United States all birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, Part 1). According to Scientific American, the American Acclimatization Society released 100 starlings into Central Park in 1890 and 1891; by the 1950s, they had spread coast to coast. The birds compete with native species and destroy crops at every turn. So thanks for that, American Acclimatization Society!

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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Scientists Accidentally Make Plastic-Eating Bacteria Even More Efficient
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In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a type of bacteria that eats non-biodegradable plastic. The organism, named Ideonella sakaiensis, can break down a thumbnail-sized flake of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the type of plastic used for beverage bottles, in just six weeks. Now, The Guardian reports that an international team of scientists has engineered a mutant version of the plastic-munching bacteria that's 20 percent more efficient.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Portsmouth in the UK didn't originally set out to produce a super-powered version of the bacteria. Rather, they just wanted a better understanding of how it evolved. PET started appearing in landfills only within the last 80 years, which means that I. sakaiensis must have evolved very recently.

The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. The structure of the enzyme is similar to the one used by some bacteria to digest cutin, a natural protective coating that grows on plants. As the scientists write in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they hoped to get a clearer picture of how the new mechanism evolved by tweaking the enzyme in the lab.

What they got instead was a mutant enzyme that degrades plastic even faster than the naturally occurring one. The improvement isn't especially dramatic—the enzyme still takes a few days to start the digestion process—but it shows that I. sakaiensis holds even more potential than previously expected.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET—and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it," study coauthor Gregg Beckham said in a press statement.

The planet's plastic problem is only growing worse. According to a study published in 2017, humans have produced a total of 9 billion tons of plastic in less than a century. Of that number, only 9 percent of it is recycled, 12 percent is incinerated, and 79 percent is sent to landfills. By 2050, scientists predict that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

When left alone, PET takes centuries to break down, but the plastic-eating microbes could be the key to ridding it from the environment in a quick and safe way. The researchers believe that PETase could be turned into super-fast enzymes that thrives in extreme temperatures where plastic softens and become easier to break down. They've already filed a patent for the first mutant version of the enzyme.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Coin-Operated Lamp Drives Home the Cost of Energy Consumption
Moak Studio
Moak Studio

You consume energy every time you switch on a light, and that ends up costing you, your power company, and the planet. This cost is easy to ignore when just a few minutes of light adds only cents to your electric bill, but over time, all that usage adds up. A new conceptual product spotted by Co.Design visualizes our energy consumption in a creative way.

Moak Studio presented their coin-operated Dina lamp at the Promote Design DIN Exhibition for Milan Design Week. To turn it on, users must first insert a medium-sized coin into a slot on the shade, whether it's a nickel, a quarter, or a euro. The coin fills in a gap in the lamp's circuitry, providing the conductive metal needed to light it. After switching the lamp off, users can flip a knob on the base to retrieve their coin.

The Dina lamp isn't meant to solve our global energy problems singlehandedly; rather, it's designed to get people to pause and think about the impact of their daily choices before they make them. But other strategies, like paying people to conserve energy rather than making them pay to use it, may be more effective when it comes to spurring real change.

Dina Lamp from MOAK Studio on Vimeo.

[h/t Co.Design]

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