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Scientists identify 66 alien species that pose the greatest threat to European biodiversity

Scientists have identified 66 alien plant and animal species, not yet established in the European Union, that pose the greatest potential threat to biodiversity and ecosystems in the region.

The research was led by Professor Helen Roy of the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and involved 43 people from across Europe including Professor Juliet Brodie, Merit researcher at the Natural History Museum. The team identified 40 alien species considered to be high risk to biodiversity, and 18 considered to be medium risk. These were identified from an initial working list of 329 alien species considered to pose threats to biodiversity recently published by the EU.

The authors developed a horizon-scanning approach in order to derive a ranked list of potential invasive alien species (IAS). Using this procedure, they worked collaboratively to reach consensus about the alien species most likely to arrive, establish, spread and have an impact on biodiversity in the region over the next decade.

Professor Juliet Brodie of the Natural History Museum said ‘We know the sorts of impacts invasive alien species can cause.  The green seaweed Codium parvulum, for example, has been reported to produce massive drifts c. 10 km long by 3 km wide and 20 cm thick, weighing an approximate 6000 tons.’

The approach is unique in the continental scale examined, the breadth of taxonomic groups and environments considered, and the methods and data sources used.  Species considered included plants, terrestrial invertebrates, marine species, freshwater invertebrates and vertebrates.

The eight species identified to pose the highest risk were:

1.    Channa argus. The northern snakehead is a species of fish native to southern and eastern China but now also widely distributed in Japan within shallow, marshy ponds and wetlands, where it preys on native fish species.

2.    Limnoperna fortunei. The golden mussel is native to China and south-eastern Asia but became established in Hong Kong in 1965, and Japan and Taiwan in the 1990s. Subsequently, it invaded the United States and South America. It alters native fauna with an impact on the freshwater food web.

3.    Orconectes rusticus. The rusty crayfish, native to the United States but now found in Canada, is a large and aggressive species of freshwater crayfish, which is more successful in deterring attack from predators than other crayfish and therefore outcompetes native species.

4.    Plotosus lineatus. The striped eel catfish is native to the Indian Ocean but was first recorded in the Mediterranean in 2002 and subsequently spread rapidly along the entire Israeli coast. This venomous catfish now inhabits all sandy and muddy substrates contributing to species decline through competition and displacement.

5.    Codium parvulum. This green seaweed native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and subsequently from the Red Sea, has since been recorded off the northern shores of Israel in the Mediterranean and along the Lebanese coast. It is considered an ecosystem engineer, altering the structure and functionality of ecosystems.

6.    Crepidula onyx. The onyx slipper snail is native to the southern coast of California and northern Pacific coast of Mexico. It is now widespread and considered highly invasive in Asia where it has been reported from KoreaJapan and Hong Kong. Slipper snails are sedentary filter-feeders and change native ecosystems.

7.    Mytilopsis sallei. The black striped mussel described from the Pacific coast of Panama is a brackish species that invaded the Indo-Pacific Ocean during the 1900s and has reached Fiji, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia. In some of these coastal areas the species completely dominates, since it can survive extreme environmental conditions.

8.    Sciurus niger. The fox squirrel native to eastern and central North America, competes for resources with the native western gray (S. griseus) and Douglas squirrels (Tamiasciurus douglasii).

The study also revealed that the highest proportion of the species identified is in Asia, North America and South America.  It was also noted that aquatic species are most likely to arrive via shipping, while terrestrial invertebrates are most likely to arrive along with goods such as plants. The Mediterranean, Continental, Macaronesian and Atlantic biogeographic regions have been predicted to be damaged the most significantly as a result of any potential introduction of these alien species. The Alpine region was, however, revealed not to be under threat by any such alien introduction. 

Professor Juliet Brodie said ‘The horizon scanning approach used here is a consensus approach using a combination of scores and discussion that can reduce levels of uncertainty. This exercise has produced valuable data essential to support decision making.’

The findings help to provide a basis for full risk assessments that can comprehensively evaluate the threat posed by these species to EU biodiversity.

The research has been published in the journal Global Change Biology


Notes for editors

  • The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.
  • The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research into land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment. @CEHScienceNew www.ceh.ac.uk
  • The authors are grateful to the European Commission for funding the study (Invasive alien species – framework for the identification of invasive alien species of EU concern ENV.B.2/ETU/2013/0026) on which this publication is based.