Encyclopedic Entry

Lionfish are popular in aquariums, but less popular in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean—they are an invasive species that outcompete native fishes for resources.

Photograph by Neil Carthy, MyShot

Invasive Species: What You Can Do
The Nature Conservancy lists six easy ways to combat invasive species:

  • Make sure the plants you are buying for your home or garden are not invasive. Contact your state's native plant society for a list of native plants.
  • When boating, make sure to clean your boat thoroughly before putting it into a different body of water.
  • Clean your boots before you hike in a new area.
  • Don't take home any animals, plants, shells, firewood, or food from different ecosystems.
  • Never release pets into the wild.
  • Volunteer at your local park, refuge, or other wildlife area to help remove invasive species. Most parks also have native species restoration programs.

Stowaway Species
Many invasive species first arrive in a new area on huge cargo ships that travel back and forth across the ocean. Ships take on ballast water in their home port. The weight of this water makes the ships stable while they travel across the ocean. When a ship gets to its destination, it releases the ballast water.

Ballast water is teeming with living creatures that were in the water at the port on the other side of the globe. Scientists estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 species are traveling around the world in ballast water at any given time. The first zebra mussels in the Great Lakes probably arrived in ballast water.

An invasive species is an organism that is not indigenous, or native, to a particular area. Invasive species can cause great economic and environmental harm to the new area.

Not all non-native species are invasive. For example, most of the food crops grown in the United States, including popular varieties of wheat, tomatoes, and rice, are not native to the region.

To be invasive, a species must adapt to the new area easily. It must reproduce quickly. It must harm property, the economy, or the native plants and animals of the region.

Many invasive species are introduced into a new region accidentally. Zebra mussels are native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Zebra mussels arrived in the Great Lakes of North America accidentally, stuck to large ships that traveled between the two regions. There are now so many zebra mussels in the Great Lakes that they have threatened native species.

Introduced Species

Some species are brought to a new area on purpose. Often, these species are introduced as a form of pest control. Other times, introduced species are brought in as pets or decorative displays. People and businesses that import these species do not anticipate the consequences. Even scientists are not always sure how a species will adapt to a new environment.

Introduced species multiply too quickly and become invasive. For example, in 1949, five cats were brought to Marion Island, a part of South Africa in the southern Indian Ocean. The cats were introduced as pest control for mice. By 1977, about 3,400 cats were living on the island, endangering the local bird population.

Other invasive species descended from pets that escaped or were released into the wild. Many people have released pet Burmese pythons into the Everglades, a swampy area of south Florida. The huge snakes can grow to 6 meters (20 feet) long. Pythons, native to the jungles of southeast Asia, have few natural predators in the Everglades. They feast on many local species, including white ibis and limpkin, two types of wading birds.

Invasive Species and the Local Environment

Many invasive species thrive because they outcompete native species for food. Bighead and silver carp are two large species of fish that escaped from fish farms in the 1990s and are now common in the Missouri River of North America. These fish feed on plankton, tiny organisms floating in the water. Many native fish species, such as paddlefish, also feed on plankton. The feeding cycle of the paddlefish is slower than that of the carp. There are now so many carp in the lower Missouri River that paddlefish do not have enough food.

Invasive species sometimes thrive because there are no predators that hunt them in the new location. Brown tree snakes were accidentally brought to Guam, an island in the South Pacific, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. No animals on Guam hunted the snakes, but the island was filled with birds, rodents, and other small animals that the snakes hunt. The snakes quickly multiplied, and they are responsible for the extinction of nine of the island’s 11 forest-dwelling bird species.

Many invasive species destroy habitat, the places where other plants and animals naturally live. Nutria are large rodents native to South America. Ranchers brought them to North America in the 1900s, hoping to raise them for their fur. Some nutria were released into the wild when the ranchers failed. Today, they are a major pest in the Gulf Coast and Chesapeake Bay regions of the United States. Nutria eat tall grasses and rushes. These plants are vital to the regions' marshy wetlands. They provide food, nesting sites, and shelter for many organisms. They also help secure sediment and soil, preventing the erosion of land. Nutria destroy the area’s food web and habitat by consuming the wetland grasses.


Some invasive species do great harm to the economy. Water hyacinth is a plant native to South America that has become an invasive species in many parts of the world. People often introduce the plant, which grows in the water, because of its pretty flowers. But the plant spreads quickly, often choking out native wildlife. In Lake Victoria, Uganda, water hyacinth grew so thickly that boats could not get through it. Some ports were closed. Water hyacinth prevented sunlight from reaching underwater. Plants and algae could not grow, preventing fish from feeding and reproducing. Lake Victoria’s fishing industry declined.

Invasive species can also damage property. Small zebra mussels clog the cooling systems in boat engines, while larger ones have damaged water pipes at power plants throughout the Great Lakes region.

Eradicating Invasive Species

Officials have used a variety of methods to try to eradicate, or get rid of, invasive species. The cats on Marion Island were infected with a virus, for instance.

Sometimes other species are introduced to help control an invasive species. In Australia, prickly pear cactus, which is native to the Americas, was growing out of control. The cactus was destroying rangeland, where ranchers raised livestock. The government brought in cactus moth caterpillars to eat the cactuses. The caterpillars are natural predators of the cactus.

Introducing insects can be dangerous, however. Sometimes, the insects also damage other plant species—they can become invasive species themselves. Chemicals have also been used to control invasive species, but they can sometimes harm noninvasive plants and animals. 

Governments are working to educate the public about invasive species. For example, in the United States, international fishing vessels are warned to wash their boats before returning home. This prevents them from accidentally transporting zebra mussels or other species from one body of water to another.

Sometimes, communities approach invasive species like an invading army. Nutria in Chesapeake Bay destroy the natural habitat, as well as cost local governments and businesses millions of dollars each year. Environmental groups, business leaders, and government officials are concerned about the harm done by this invasive species.

Officials at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, in the U.S. state of Maryland, worked with hunters to eradicate the 8,500 nutria in the refuge. Hunters waded into specific areas of the marsh during specific times of the year. They tracked nutria using global positioning system (GPS) equipment and set traps that would kill the rodents. The hunters moved across the refuge in a massive, coordinated, west-to-east movement. In winter, the ice on Chesapeake Bay prevented the nutria from swimming away. Hunters could shoot them on sight.

The operation took two years, but nutria were eradicated from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The wetland is slowly recovering.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

adapt

Verb

to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

algae

Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

anticipate

Verb

to expect or act in advance.

army

Noun

military land forces.

ballast

Noun

heavy material, usually water, used to provide stability for large ships or other oceangoing vessels.

brown tree snake

Noun

reptile native to Australia and Papua New Guinea.

cactus

Noun

type of plant native to dry regions.

cargo

Noun

goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

carp

Noun

freshwater fish native to Europe and Asia.

caterpillar

Noun

larva of a butterfly or moth.

consequence

Noun

result or outcome of an action or situation.

crop

Noun

agricultural produce.

Encyclopedic Entry: crop

destination

Noun

place where a person or thing is going.

dwelling

Noun

a place to live.

economic

Adjective

having to do with money.

economy

Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

eradicate

Verb

to destroy or remove.

erosion

Noun

act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: erosion

Everglades

Noun

vast swampy region flowing south of Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

extinction

Noun

process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

feeding cycle

Noun

time and method an organism uses for eating or consuming nutrients.

fish farming

Noun

art and science of raising and harvesting fish and other seafood, such as shrimp or crabs.

food web

Noun

all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

Encyclopedic Entry: food web

Global Positioning System (GPS)

Noun

system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

Great Lakes

Noun

largest freshwater bodies in the world, located in the United States and Canada. Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior make up the Great Lakes.

habitat

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: habitat

hunt

Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

indigenous

Adjective

native to or characteristic of a specific place.

introduced species

Noun

a species that does not naturally occur in an area. Also called alien, exotic, or non-native species.

invasive species

Noun

type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species

limpkin

Noun

wading bird native to North America.

livestock

noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

marsh

Noun

wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.

Encyclopedic Entry: marsh

massive

Adjective

very large or heavy.

native species

Noun

species that occur naturally in an area or habitat. Also called indigenous species.

nesting site

Noun

place where birds build nests and raise their young.

non-native species

Noun

a type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area. Non-native species can sometimes cause economic or environmental harm as an invasive species.

nutria

Noun

large rodent native to South America. Also called the coypu.

organism

Noun

living or once-living thing.

outcompete

Verb

to perform better than another at the same task.

paddlefish

Noun

large fish with a long, flat snout.

pest control

Noun

process of removing unwanted species (pests) from a specific geographic area.

plankton

Plural Noun

(singular: plankton) microscopic aquatic organisms.

port

Noun

place on a body of water where ships can tie up or dock and load and unload cargo.

Encyclopedic Entry: port

predator

Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

property

Noun

goods or materials owned by someone.

python

Noun

non-venomous snake native to tropical climates.

ranch

Noun

large farm on which livestock are raised.

range

Noun

agricultural land where livestock graze.

rodent

Noun

order of mammals often characterized by long teeth for gnawing and nibbling.

rush

Noun

grasslike aquatic plant.

sediment

Noun

solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

Encyclopedic Entry: sediment

soil

Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

stable

Adjective

steady and reliable.

teem

Verb

to overflow or be full of.

threaten

Verb

to scare or be a source of danger.

virus

Noun

tiny organism that lives and multiplies in a living cell.

water hyacinth

Noun

aquatic plant native to South America.

wetland

Noun

area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

Encyclopedic Entry: wetland

wheat

Noun

most widely grown cereal in the world.

white ibis

Noun

wading bird native to North America.

zebra mussel

Noun

aquatic animal (mollusk) native to Europe.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writers

Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt

Illustrators

Tim Gunther
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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