Links between the Pandemic and Invasive Species

by - July 22, 2020

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of parallels drawn to climate change. You can see why: disaster on a global scale, disproportionate impacts on those less privileged, both systematic and individual change necessary to combat the problem. Many environmentalists also took the opportunity to highlight the global panic around coronavirus contrasted with the startling lack of panic relating to climate change. 

I think the more obvious parallel of the pandemic to a conservation issue is the spread of invasive species. Invasive species are species that occur outside of their native range AND cause negative impacts to the indigenous species or ecosystems in their new space. Grey squirrels in the UK are a classic example. Due to their introduction, for ornamental reasons by humans in the 1876, red squirrels have declined almost to the point of extinction. Grey squirrels are more generalist and so out-compete red squirrels for food and space, meaning reds have been pushed out. For example, red squirrels find tannins in acorns unpalatable, whereas greys can digest them fine. Another classic example of a successful invasion is of two lionfish species in the USA, Caribbean and Mediterranean. Lionfish are endemic to the Pacific (red lion fish; Pterois volitans) and Indian (devil filefish; Pterois miles) Oceans. It is thought their invasion into the Atlantic was a result of exotic pet owners dumping them when they realised they could not look after them (they're are predators and can be aggressive). A small number were thought to be released in the 1980s, and since their population has exploded. They have few predators in these new environments and their arrival has had severe implications on the native fish and coal reef systems.

The reason I link invasive species to COVID-19 is that invasive species and zoonotic diseases sometimes spread in similar ways. Just like a virus, invasive species do not pay attention to country borders or boundaries, and globalisation enables the spread of invasive species through travel - via airplanes, boats, or just carrying them on you (eg insects or bacteria). As with the grey squirrels and lion fish, humans are responsible for a significant number of cases where invasive species have been introduced. During the invasive species module in my CB masters, I drew the parallel that we spray planes for diseases, but not invasives. We are much more diligent of our impact on the planet when we are the victims. But our impact on the planet goes far beyond our own species. COVID-19 is showcasing to us how powerful nature is, and gives an insight into how easily things can spread around the shrinking world we’ve created.

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that spread from animals to humans and cause illness in humans. They are caused by harmful germs like bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. They can spread from animals to humans in various ways: through both direct and indirect contact, through eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, or through vectors (e.g. ticks, mosquitoes). Scientists believe COVID-19 spread from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China.

The current way we treat the natural world is damaging. We know that we are polluting the planet and destroying natural habitats at an alarming rate. What this pandemic has done is show us how these actions are also incredibly harmful to us. We have been playing with fire, and now we've been burnt. 

If the way we treat wildlife does not change, this will happen again. Professor Paula Cannon of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California said: "Humans are increasing the odds of diseases happening as we move into wild areas and catch wild animal.s We are creating the circumstance where it is only a matter of time when this was going to happen, and it will only be a matter of time before it happens again."

As we continue to encroach on wild space, continue to travel so much, and continue to disregard nature as we have been doing, the spread of zoonotic diseases and invasive species will persist. Every invasive species case is different, but there are simple ways to help minimise their spread:

  1. In the same way you must wash your hands to avoid corona, wash your clothes when you visit new places. 
  2. Take all your rubbish with you (even biodegradable produce). 
  3. Never release your pets - re-home them if you don’t want them or can no longer look after them. 
  4. After leaving any water body (river, lake, ocean etc.) clean & dry everything thoroughly - from swimming stuff to surf boards to boats! The tiniest little creatures can remain if not and you might mistakenly transport them to a new home. Same goes for hiking gear: clean it thoroughly before entering a new system.
  5. Keep your pets out of waterways where possible. They can act as a vector for invasive species. 
  6. Join removal efforts.
  7. Report invasive species you find to local nature trusts/organisations. Take pictures and mark your location if you can. 
  8. If a species is classed as invasive, do not breed, buy, import, sell or keep this species as a pet.
And remember during this pandemic, many species are face their own version of COVID-19 everyday because of us. 

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