Friday Report: Aliens in the midst
December 13, 2013
Thomas Austin is a cursed name Down Under. He was an avid hunter and an Englishman with a summer place in Melbourne, Australia. In 1859, he brought a dozen pair of breeding rabbits, ". . . to provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting." By 1890, rabbits were a plague that had eliminated countless native species and changed the environment of the Outback forever. It was the fastest spread recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Thomas may be the scapegoat, but British soldiers were dumping live rabbits on the island ten years earlier, feeding prisoners on England's remote penal colony.
Australia erected a rabbit-proof fence in 1907 that was 2,000 miles long, the distance from Los Angeles to Detroit, but the rabbits were quicker and the effort was wasted. Aussie scientists developed hare-brained viruses and trained imported fleas to spread them, but so far they've only accomplished a bad flea problem and a new breed of resistant super-rabbits.
As sugarcane plantations shot up in Hawaii, so did the rat population. Mongoose were introduced to eat the rats but found the Nene Goose (no relation) more appealing. The Nene Goose is Hawaii's state bird. A decade ago, their population dropped below 800 but intense conservation efforts have brought them back to about 2,500.
Not all alien introductions are man-made. Thanks mostly to global warming, the mountain pine beetle finally amassed in enough numbers to overwhelm almost every pine tree in the entire western U.S. along with parts of Mexico and Canada. The Eastern Seaboard now faces the Coastal Pine Beetle and local and state governments are pouring immense efforts at eradication. Odds are their efforts will be as successful as ours, and eastern pines will prove just as tasty as the western variety.
But to prove we are smarter than nature, some alien introductions are man-made. The tamarisk is a fast-growing bushy tree imported from Asia in the 1800s as a garden ornamental. Since then, it jumped the garden and went on to choke out 1.6 million acres of native vegetation, mostly along the Colorado River basin. One mature tamarisk consumes 200 gallons of water per day and annually the tamarisk guzzles an estimated 3 to 5 million acre-feet of water that used to flow down the Colorado River.
Everybody knows that the last damn thing you do in Colorado is mess with somebody else's water. Searching the world over entomologists found a tamarisk-munching bug just outside Fukang, China, and named it the Tamarisk Leaf Beetle. Since 2004, the Colorado Department of People Who Really, Really Know What They're Doing has released several swarms of the TLB along the Colorado River.
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So far, the imported beetles are making a serious dent on the tamarisk and there are growing hopes that it may someday be controlled. After careful study, bug scientists assure us that TLB eats only the tamarisk, despite being offered tasty-looking avocado- flavored tortilla chips, Blue Bunny ice cream, southern barbecue and even turning their mandibles up at the new hamburger offering from Olive Garden. So after they eat up all the tamarisk, the only thing left would be to offer them a boat ride back to the Fukang River.
Scientists are convinced they could solve the Australian rabbit problem if they could only hop fast enough to inoculate 600,000,000 of them. Oh, wait! Make that 600,099,999 rabbits. No, no, make that . . .