Invasive species have been around for centuries, since the beginning of international trade.
However, a major new trade route organized by China that spans 123 countries could accelerate the spread of invasive species like never before, researchers said on Thursday.
Officially called the Belt and Road Initiative, the project was launched five years ago and aims to include about half the planet — linking Asia, Europe, Africa, Central and South America.
Chinese Academy of Sciences investigator Li Yiming (李義明) wondered years ago about Beijing’s promise that the project would be a “green” initiative.
In particular, what would be the consequences for amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals?
“Perhaps the focus of the authorities has been more on pests and diseases in agriculture, and invasive species is not a popular topic,” he told reporters.
Li and colleagues in China and Britain developed a model overlapping the regions of the world that would be linked by the new routes, based on trade values, and their climates and habitats in order to predict where 816 types of vertebrates were most likely to be introduced and stick around.
Their study, published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, identified 14 major hot spots where there is a high risk of invasive species becoming established.
On their map, these hot spots appear on all continents — from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines to parts of the Mediterranean to southern Chile and the Caribbean.
In Africa, countries like Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon — where the climate is favorable — are also on the list.
“What we’re most concerned about is the six large economic corridors” spanning Asia and Europe, Li said.
Due to the high traffic, “there is a high probability of introduction and local conditions are suitable for the survival of alien species. We refer to these places as invasive hot spots,” Li added.
“Invasions are continually happening all over the place,” said coauthor Tim Blackburn, a professor of invasion biology at University College London.
Europeans exported rats to the Americas. At the start of the 20th century, an Asian fungus wiped out North America’s chestnut forests.
New Zealand, which was home to no native land mammals before the arrival of man, now has 25 species, including rats, mice, hedgehogs and ferrets.
“This will be different, just because of the extent of it and the volumes of trade potentially involved,” Blackburn said.
Like bugs and fungi, rats, frogs, snakes and birds can hitch a ride in trucks, trains, ships and even airplanes. So can domestic pets, which are then sometimes let go in nature.
Already, a bird called the common myna (Acridotheres tristis), native to Russia and Kazakhstan, has made its way into northwest China’s Xinjiang, destroying the nests of local birds.
The American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) has been eating Chinese amphibians for years — along with many elsewhere — and is considered “the most invasive amphibian in the world,” Li said.
So what can be done?
Researchers have said that the solution is biosecurity, including measures such as surveillance of containers, monitoring contents of shipments and instituting quarantines and programs designed to protect biodiversity.
The analysis is “interesting,” but “it’s necessarily pretty coarse in some ways,” as it does not go into detail about which invasive species are likely, or where they might end up, Purdue University professor of forestry and natural resources Jeffrey Dukes.
“This paper is great as a wake-up call,” said Dukes, who was not involved in the study.
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