Jon De Vos – There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
August 13, 2009
Thomas Austin will be forever cursed as the avid British hunter who imported a dozen pair of European rabbits to Australia back in 1859. He wanted “… to provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”
By 1890, rabbits were a plague that eliminated native species and changed the environment of the Outback forever in the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Thomas has become the scapegoat, but the truth is that more than 10 years earlier, live rabbits were routinely tossed off British boats to feed prisoners that England had dumped on her remote penal colony.
In a futile attempt to halt the invasion, Australia erected a rabbit-proof fence in 1907 that was almost 2,000 miles long, roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Detroit, but the rabbits were quicker and the effort was wasted.
Numerous attempts to eliminate the rabbit have failed. Scientists bred anti-bunny viruses and imported fleas to spread them but so far have produced only a flea problem and a race of virus-immune super-rabbits. Immunocontraceptives are the latest thinking, lacking only a good delivery system. This method of birth control is constrained only by the reality of inoculating an estimated 600,000,000 rabbits. Oh, wait! Make that 600,000,999 rabbits. Oh, wait . . . Maybe James Dobson could convince the lop-eared Aussies to enroll in his abstinence-only program.
Despite determined attempts at genocide, the rabbit helped a lot of people through the Great Depression and the subsequent deprivations of World War II. Trapping rabbits helped farmers and farmhands by providing something to eat, food for the working dogs, fodder for poultry and pelts for the fur trade.
We have only to go as far as Grand Lake to find an inadvertent invasive species in the Zebra Mussel, fingernail-sized, fresh water mussels native to the Caspian Sea/Black Sea region of Asia. They were transported to the Great Lakes in ballast water from trans-oceanic vessels and first discovered in Lake St. Clair, near Detroit, in 1988. A mere 21 years later they’re right here in our backyard.
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Hawaii was a perfect climate for sugarcane but as the plantations shot up, so did the rat population after the sugary pulp. Mongoose were introduced to eat the rats that ate the sugarcane that devoured the countryside. But the mongoose quickly proved more interested in the Nene goose, Hawaii’s state bird whose population today is below 800. The rat? Well, the mongoose sleeps at night and prowls during the day, while the rat sleeps during the day and prowls at night. Both populations are growing unchecked and remain barely aware of the other’s existence.
Hopefully it is with a little more science and a lot more thought that entomologists in seven Southwestern states, including our own Colorado, unleashed swarms of hungry Asian beetles last week upon the lowly tamarisk, a fast-growing bushy tree imported from Asia in the 1800s as a garden ornamental. Today the tamarisk has consumed more than 1.5 million acres between California and Kansas, growing a foot a month to a mature height of 30 feet.
Most troubling, the West is losing an estimated 4.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the tamarisk while the leaves of this invader exude salts that sterilize the soil as it spreads.
Bug scientists have placed our hopes on the Asian Tamarisk beetle, an insect, they assure us, that eats only the tamarisk, despite being offered tasty-looking corn, tomatoes, rice, root vegetables and other household snacks.
I can just hear them in a few years, “There was simply no way we could have anticipated that these beetles would develop such a strong attraction to the organic components of computer mainframes. We are working on a solution but now that messages are hand-written and carried by mules, things have slowed considerably.”
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