Guest blog post by James Dickey
The role played by the global pet trade in the spread of invasive alien species is increasingly gaining attention. Media outlets have excitedly picked up on stories of released goldfish growing to the size of rugby balls, Amazonian catfish appearing in Scottish rivers, and North American crayfish terrorising Tiergarten tourists in Berlin. In recent years I’ve been drawn to these stories, despite the simplistic, repetitive plot: well-meaning but feckless owners can no longer give pets the care they deserve, they struggle to rehome the pets, they release the pets into the wild, chaos ensues.
This happens more than you might think, with pet releases deemed responsible for 53% of invasive vertebrate species and one third of all aquatic invasive species. It has been shown that the more readily available a species is in the pet trade, the greater the risk of it being released, or escaping, into the wild.
Somewhat fascinatingly, this also puts the trade at the mercy of pop culture influences. 1970s animated series “Rascal the Raccoon” is commonly blamed for Japan’s invasive racoon population, and demand for Trachemys scripta pets is said to have boomed in the 1990s due to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Side note: the influence of movies highlighting the challenges of pet ownership, such as “Gremlins” or “Little Shop of Horrors”, warrants further study.
While invasion ecology has typically focused on these released species and the impacts that they cause, many species are sold with commensal organisms attached. These incidentally carried fauna are commonly known as “hitchhikers”.
Recent studies have found the protozoan Vorticella sp. and a species of bdelloid rotifer associated with two species of atyid shrimps, digenean larvae with the carnivorous snail Anentome helena, and an epibiont, Diceratocephala boschmai, on New Guinean ornamental Cherax crayfish.
A high-profile example emerged in 2021 when zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) were detected in 21 US states on aquarium moss balls that had been imported from Ukraine, and subsequent searches revealed the species in 600 locations in Canada. Similar findings have since emerged from Europe. Having colonised both European and North American waters, the ease with which this Ponto-Caspian bivalve is being spread by the pet trade on both sides of the Atlantic is a major concern. Zebra mussels have been listed as one of the IUCN’s “100 of the Worst Invasive Species”, and their myriad ecological and economic impacts range from habitat alteration, to competition with native unionids, to disruption of food-web structure, to blocking industrial water intake pipes. They are also able to attach to boat hulls and other organisms, facilitating further spread.
I remember the moment clearly. I had ordered seventy-five Viviparus viviparus – a common European pond snail species – for behavioural studies at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel where I was based for lab work in the group of Elizabeta Briski. After some stress over posting delays and an increasingly fraught relationship developing with the GEOMAR receptionist, the snails arrived. Over the next day, watching them go about their lives in our climate chamber in their new tanks became a favourite way to spend working breaks. With obvious dimorphism you could clearly tell males from females, which added to the developing snail soap operas. However, just before packing up to leave the lab, I noticed a huge lump on one snail. What on earth is that? Soon I noticed a second. I called Elizabeta with my suspicions, which she confirmed the next day. Photos were taken, measurements made, and our go-to ecological geneticist Reid Brennan was begged to work his DNA sequencing magic. Before long, it was all confirmed: we had zebra mussels.
The biggest takeaway message here is that even native species in the pet trade can facilitate the spread of non-native hitchhikers. In a parallel universe, those snails did not go to an invasion ecology lab but rather to someone keen to stock their garden pond. Escape from ponds is a major pathway for freshwater species introductions, and even if the impact of a native species escaping might be limited, its potential for the zoochorous dispersal of a non-native should not be ignored.
Of course, questions surround the conditions under which the pond snails were held before selling. Were they stocked in zebra mussel infested outdoor ponds? Which other species are held in a similar way? How prevalent are these practices within the trade? One way of combating this risk of non-native species spread is via legislation. Calls have been made for white lists of low-risk species that can be sold in the trade in place of risky species, but in our study, the issue stems from the selling of a native species within its native range, which would surely be deemed low-risk.
We propose that should a white-list system be adopted, the potential for a “low-risk” species to transport invasive species must be accounted for. We also call for stricter biosecurity practices to be enforced, including regular checking and disinfecting of outdoor stock ponds where appropriate. Tools such as environmental DNA surveillance could be used to effectively detect the presence of targeted invasive species, as part of biosecurity “audits”. However, for the time being, a desperate, final line of defence is to raise awareness amongst consumers and for them to be wary of unwanted hitchhikers.
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