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Behind the Scenes: Invasive Species

SI scientists help fight invasive species

A thriving population of snakehead fish, a voracious predator from Eurasia capable of eradicating fish species native to the United States, was recently discovered in a pond in Crofton, Md.

Last summer, 48 humans and countless mammals and birds fell victim to an outbreak of West Nile virus. In the Eastern United States, some 7,000 trees have been destroyed by the Asian longhorn beetle. Hundreds of thousands of acres of trees in the United States may be lost if efforts fail to control this beetle.

These are just a few examples of invasive species that threaten lives and natural resources in the United States. In many instances, the Smithsonian has been playing an important part in the constant battle to keep such invasive pests from gaining entry into the country and, if they become established, keeping them in check.

Scott Miller, chairman of the Department of Systematic Biology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture about invasive species and the Smithsonian’s role in studying these organ isms.

"I wanted to raise the profile of what the Smithsonian does and how science is basic to so much in American life," Miller said. "If a species shows up in our back yard, it can be a hazard or benign. Our scientists can identify the species and put it in a classification that reflects its relationship to other organisms and allows prediction of its biological traits."

scottmiller.jpg (32067 bytes)

Scott Miller works with a collection of moths.

Identifying foreign species, and knowing their natural enemies, can help eradicate them and prevent them from becoming established in this country.

The hearing was sponsored by the House Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia.

Structured as an informational briefing, other presenters included representatives from the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Smithsonian scientists have been involved with invasive species since the 1880s, "before they were even called invasive species," Miller said during his testimony.

Since that time, SI has joined with other agencies studying the introduction of pests into the United States. Utilizing the invasive species expertise of Smithsonian scientists is an integral part of the activities coordinated by the National Invasive Species Council, created by an executive order in 1999.

"One reason the Smithsonian has so much information on these organisms is that so many scientists have worked on invasive species over the years. All their research information is archived in the collections," Miller said.

For the hearing, Miller brought along a display of invasive species specimens, including examples from the national biological collections stored at NMNH."I brought real examples of what people see in the news," Miller said. His specimens included a snakehead fish in a jar of alcohol, a Hawaiian tree frog, a brown tree snake and an Asian longhorn beetle.

Miller’s congressional testimony stressed the importance of the collections and resources at NMNH in identifying species as they are discovered in new places. This information often helps determine whether a foreign species threatens native plants and animals or agricultural crops.

"The resources at the Smithsonian are so critical to this effort," Miller pointed out in the hearing. "Invasive species can be any kind of organism and can come from any place on the planet. In order to respond to this challenge, we must have the depth and breadth of collections, such as we have here, to serve as a reference. More people work on taxonomy at NMNH than anywhere else," he said. "People come here for our expertise."

Miller highlighted a few examples of research at the Smithsonian related to invasive species. At the Environmental Research Center, scientists are analyzing marine organisms that are regularly transported around the world in the ballast water of cargo ships.

"If a ship travels from the Baltic to the Great Lakes, then dumps its ballast water, suddenly there are bizarre fish and invertebrates populating the Great Lakes," Miller said.

Similarly, Tropical Research Institute scientists have spent more than 80 years studying the movement of marine organisms between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and terrestrial organisms between North and South America.

Almost every day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls upon the expertise of the entomologists working with the NMNH insect collection. If the entomologists determine that insects found on agricultural products being imported to the United States pose a hazard, the shipment can be denied entry.

"SI is very involved in these activities. We are being called upon more and more to provide information about invasive species," Miller said. |

December 2002


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Prepared by the Entomology Section, Dept. of Systematic Biology
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
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