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Invasive Species: Why Are There No Startups?

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If you look up the Sustainable Goals for Life on Land you will know that many companies are attempting to solve issues like conservation, restoration and sustainable use of ecosystems (Life on Land 15.1), ending deforestation and restoring degraded forests (Life on Land 15.2) and protecting biodiversity and natural habitats (Life on Land 15.5). However, Life on Land 15.8; Preventing invasive alien species on land and in water ecosystems, has received comparatively little coverage, attention or investment. The more detailed description of this target is: to introduce measures to prevent the introduction and significantly reduce the impact of invasive alien species on land and water ecosystems and control or eradicate the priority species.

At COP 15: the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal also named a target to tackle the issue of invasive species: Prevent the introduction of priority invasive alien species, and reduce by at least half the introduction and establishment of other known or potential invasive alien species, and eradicate or control invasive alien species on islands and other priority sites. The economic costs of dealing with invasive species are reported to be in the trillions of dollars worldwide and the ecological cost in some cases can be catastrophic. So what are invasive species? And why are so few companies attempting to solve the problem?

5 min read 23 Dec, 2022

invasive species

What are invasive species?

Invasive species are animals or plants that are not native to an ecosystem and cause harm to native species, ecosystems and environments after being introduced by humans. Invasive species can be introduced to a new ecosystem through vectors like the pet trade, as hitchhikers on ships or airplanes, or intentionally as a biological control for other pests. Once they are established in a new area, invasive species can spread rapidly, making them difficult to control.

What are some examples of invasive species?

Some examples of invasive species include:

  • The Zebra mussel, native to the Black Sea, which has been introduced to areas of Europe and the United States and have spread by attaching themselves to the hulls of ships.
  • The Cane Toad, native to Central and South America, invasive in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean.
  • The Asian Common Toad, native to Southeast Asia, now invasive on the island of Madagascar, regions of Wallacea and in areas of Papua.
  • The Grey Squirrel, native to North America, invasive in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Italy.
  • The Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, invasive in the West Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean seas.
  • The Brown Tree Snake, native to northern Australia, eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and northern Melanesia, invasive on the island of Guam.
  • The Burmese Python native to Southeast Asia, invasive in the Florida Everglades, United States.
  • Jackson's Chameleon, native to East Africa, invasive in Hawaii.
  • The Veiled Chameleon, native to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, invasive in Hawaii.
  • The Californian Kingsnake, native to the western United States and northern Mexico, now invasive on the island of Gran Canaria.
  • The Horseshoe Whipsnake, native to North Africa and southwestern Europe, invasive on Fomentera and Ibiza in the Balearic Islands.

How do invasive species spread?

Invasive species can spread through a number of human mediated or assisted means. As mentioned above, Zebra Mussels have spread by attaching themselves to the hulls of ships. The Cane Toad was deliberately introduced to areas of its invasive range by humans for the purpose of biological control of agricultural insect pests. The Asian Common Toad most likely arrived in Madagascar in shipping containers from Thailand for the construction of a nickel and cobalt mine's processing plant.

Grey Squirrels were introduced to the UK as additions to estates and were reportedly released into Regent's Park in London in the 1870s. Lionfish were reportedly accidentally introduced in areas of Florida from aquarium escapees, possibly as a result of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hurricane Andrew is also linked as the cause of the introduction of the Burmese Python in Florida, when captive pythons escaped from a breeding facility into the wild.

The Brown Tree Snake made it to Guam after being accidentally transported in US military ship cargo from its native range. The Veiled Chameleon and Jackson's Chameleon are believed to have been introduced into Hawaii through the pet trade as released pets. The Californian Kingsnake is also thought to have spread to Gran Canaria through the pet trade. The Horseshoe Whipsnake was introduced to Ibiza and Formenta islands as stowaways inside trunks of olive trees imported for gardening.

Why are invasive species dangerous to the environment?

Invasive species can outcompete native species for resources, alter habitats and ecosystems in ways that are harmful to native species, and spread diseases. In some cases they can also cause species to become extinct.

Zebra Mussels have had a negative impact on the native ecosystem by outcompeting native mussels for food and habitat, as well as clogging water intake pipes and causing damage to boats and other infrastructure. The Asian Common Toad has had a negative impact on native predator species. Most native animals in Madagascar have no resistance to the toads poison and die when attempting to consume them. Recent research has shown that it has already caused population declines of the native Cat Eyed Snake.

The larger Grey Squirrel brought diseases that killed native Red Squirrels and the invasive Grey has outcompeted them in large parts of the United Kingdom. Lionfish prey on native juvenile reef fish species and their presence could have negative long term impacts for native fish species populations. The invasion of the Brown Tree Snake on Guam has decimated populations of bird species native to Guam. Similarly, the Burmese Python has had a negative impact on prey mammal populations in areas of the Everglades.

In Hawaii, the Jackson's Chameleon is a threat to the native insect population and has been found to prey on native snail species including the Critically Endangered O'ahu tree snail. The Californian Kingsnake has decimated native reptile species on the island of Gran Canaria and the invasive presence of the Horseshoe Whipsnake on the islands Ibiza and Formenta has had a similar negative effect on native populations of the Ibiza Wall Lizard.

Why are Cane Toads in Australia considered an invasive species rather than simply non-native?

Similar to the Asian Common Toad, the Cane Toad is considered an invasive species because it affects the populations of naive native predators that become poisoned and die when attempting to eat the toads. The presence of Cane Toads can also negatively affect the size and populations of other frogs in the ecosystems that they have invaded. A non-native species is a species that has been introduced to an area that it does not naturally occur but is not considered harmful to the native ecosystem in contrast to an invasive species and this is not the case for the Cane Toad.

How to get rid of invasive species

It is very difficult to get rid of invasive species completely (eradicate) though there are many successful examples, particularly from islands. Rats have been eradicated from a number of islands across the world using methods including poison baiting and trapping. Feral cats have been eradicated using trapping, hunting, poisoning and the introduction of cat virus. Goats have been eradicated using hunting methods.

There is only one documented instance where Cane Toads have been successfully removed from an island. This occurred on Nonsuch Island in Bermuda and it took six years, thousands of volunteer hours, hand collection and fencing methods and an investment of $10,000 to remove toads from an area of 0.6 kilometres. For a comprehensive list of island invasive species eradications and in progress eradications the Database of Island Invasive Species Eradications is a good resource.

What startups are trying to impact the problem?

Invasive species as a sustainable resource

Inversa

Inversa is a startup based in Florida that makes products sourced from invasive Lionfish leather. Lionfish are a predatory fish native to the Indo-Pacific ocean that have become invasive in the west Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. Lionfish impact both the economy and ecosystems of these areas by destroying native biodiversity, affecting coral and destroying the livelihood of local people by eating the fish they depend on for a living. Inversa sell the leather in a variety of colors and have even created a range sneakers using lionfish leather too.

Kobja

Kobja is a luxury fashion company based in France that uses invasive Cane Toad leather to make a range of handbags, purses and other leather based luxury goods. Cane Toads are native to Central and South America but are now invasive in areas of Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines after being introduced as a biological pest control experiment that went badly wrong.

Invasive Species Detection and Prevention

eDNA companies

A number of environmental DNA or eDNA companies are using DNA detection to prevent new invasive species from entering ecosystems. This allows environmental controllers and customs officials at border and port areas to test for the presence of invasive species in cargo. Australian startup EnviroDNA is one of a number of eDNA companies with this technology.

What opportunities are there for new startups?

Invasive species as a sustainable resource

As highlighted in the examples of Inversa and Kobja, there is a great deal of opportunity in the use of invasive species as a sustainable resource but on a much larger scale. Small, singular startups like these are positive but cannot 'significantly reduce the impact of invasive species' as outlined in target 15.8. We need an entire industry dedicated to the harvesting of these animals from non-native ecosystems to have more of an impact.

The lack of invasive leather startups is potentially linked to a perceived image issue. One of the big problems in this space is that all animal skin leather is seen as 'bad' when the reality is that skins and products using invasive leather are a positive for ecosystems. There is no valid argument to use vegan leather, (a material which is made of plastic!) ahead of invasive species leather yet vegan leather is popular because of how it is perceived.

An additional plus for invasive leather is that it creates an industry for local people to catch the animals so a project like this would have social and economic benefits too. An attempt was made to start a leather project with invasive Cane Toad skins in Fiji in 2012 by the International Trade Centre. The initial pilot project went well, training local people in techniques to produce samples for a number of fashion outlets, but the project fell through when funding was not forthcoming.

The sheer population numbers for example of Cane Toads across Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines can certainly support a new industry. Whether that is as a luxury fashion leather as demonstrated by Kobja or something more mass market like wallets, iPhone cases or other small leather items is up for debate. Certainly any new invasive toad leather industry might also target the recent Asian toad invasion of Madagascar to help mobilise and support local people to collect them and impact their spread.

Invasive species monitoring platforms

With the explosion of ecosystem restoration as a service platforms like Dendra Systems, I don't think it is an inconceivable idea that a platform or startup could be created to manage and monitor positive ecosystem benefits received from invasive species management projects in a similar way. The 'environmental credit' could be packaged as a 'positive ecosystem benefit' and quantified by measuring the positive impact of native species populations/body size/reproductive fitness/abundance before and after for example the removal of toads. This could be done by carefully monitoring native species in competition with the toads or predator species following species removal. This 'ecosystem benefit' could then be sold to companies looking to have a positive impact on the environment.

For this kind of project to be successful there would need to be:

  1. Careful scientific inquiry as to what the most effective removal and/or management technique would be for any given invasive species.
  2. Careful selection of invasive species suitable for removal.
  3. Actual realistic chance of management techniques being effective in the local or widespread removal of the target animal for there to be a benefit.

Biological control of invasive species

In certain circumstances invasive species can decrease agriculture yields. One example this is true for is the Golden Apple Snail, a snail native to South America that has become an invasive species in Europe, the US and Asia as a result of being introduced as an escaped or released aquarium pet or food item. Golden Apple Snails have a negative impact on rice and taro yields in areas of Asia where they have been introduced and the impact is particularly bad in India, Bangladesh, China and South East Asia.

The most popular method of pest control of Golden Apple Snails is the use of chemical molluscicides, which are effective but have negative effects on humans, non-targeted organisms and the environment. Climate change is projected to worsen the impact of the Golden Apple Snail and a more sustainable solution is required. Current methods of biological control of Golden Apple Snails include the use of naturally occurring predators with species of fish, turtles and ducks. A startup in this space would need considerable up front investment and to either be based in Asia or have a strong presence in Asia. Any startup would need to have a team with strong knowledge of the scientific issues surrounding Golden Apple Snail pest control and the use of biological predators.

There are hundreds of invasive species across the world and the examples I have given above are just the tip of the iceberg. If you are looking for a list the 100 worlds worst invasive species is probably a good place to start. If you'd like to have a conversation about invasive species, write an article or are intrigued about any of areas I have highlighted above then I'd be happy to converse more so send me an email, or follow on Twitter here.