A different kind of immigration problem

January 8, 2012 - 08:00

A new method is developed to assess the environmental risks posed by non-native species.

American lobster is an introduced species in Norway (Photo: Colourbox)

The Harlequin ladybeetle, Japanese knotweed and the American lobster – while this trio of creatures may have friendly sounding names, they are all introduced species in Norway, and may be anything but friendly to the Norwegian environment.

But determining exactly how damaging introduced species may be in their new environment has always been something of a challenge for biologists and land managers – until now.

A unique quantitative method have been created by a coalition of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and staff from the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre. The new method enables researchers and others to assess the environmental risks posed by non-native species.

While the method is tailored to the Norwegian environment, it can easily be adapted to other countries, and fills a vital need internationally for a quantifiable, uniform approach to classifying and assessing alien species, according to the developers.

"This provides an objective classification of these species' potential impact on the Norwegian environment. We relied on much of the same principles as are used in the preparation of the 'Red List' of endangered and threatened species," says Professor Bernt-Erik Saether at NTNU's Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), who has spearheaded the development of the new methodology.

Rating risks


The method classifies species according to their reproductive ability, growth rate, individual densities, population densities, prevalence and their effect.

This information allows the researchers to plot the risks posed by each species on two axes. One shows the likelihood of the species' dispersal and ability to establish itself in the environment- along with its rate of establishment, if applicable. The other shows the degree to which the alien species will affect native species and habitats.

Based on the combined values of the two axes, the species can be placed in one of five risk categories:


  • Very high risk species that can have a strong negative effect on the Norwegian environment;


  • High risk species that have spread widely with some ecological impact, or those that have a major ecological effect but have only limited distribution;


  • Potentially high risk species that have very limited dispersal ability, but a substantial ecological impact or vice versa;


  • Low risk species, with low or moderate dispersion and moderate to limited ecological effect;
  • 

Species with no known risk factors that are not known to have spread and have no known ecological effects.



Black-listed species



Norway's first official foray into evaluating the risks posed by invasive species was with the publication of the 2007 Norwegian Black List, which described the risks posed by 217 of the 2483 alien species then known in Norway.

"With the publication of a new list of alien species in the summer of 2012, the number of species that will be thoroughly evaluated by scientists will climb to roughly 2600," says project manager Lisbeth Gederaas at the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre.  The 2012 Black List will employ the new evaluation method.



Gederaas thinks that the results from this work will give the Norwegian community a better knowledge base with which to evaluate alien species.

The garden lupine now colonizes road corridord and riverbanks. (Photo: Colourbox)

"We want to provide answers to the following questions: Who are these species, when did they come to Norway, where do they live, how do they behave and what risks do they pose to the Norwegian environment?"

, she explains.

Recent immigrants



Most of the alien species evaluated in the 2007 Black List had come to Norway only in the last 150 years – in fact, only 10 percent were introduced to the country prior to 1850.

 And compared to countries such as the United States, where alien species that have taken over whole landscapes, Norway is actually in reasonable shape.

But Gederaas says that situation is rapidly changing, as Norwegians travel more and their ability to accidently or unintentionally introduce species increases. 

"In Norway we don't have the same problem as bigger countries, but it may be just a matter of time," she observed.



Beautiful flowers – but damaging effects



In some cases, for example, alien species are escapes from home gardens, such as the garden lupine, Lupinus polyphyllus, which was first reported from the Oslo Botanical Garden in 1831. Its beautiful pea-type flowers made it a popular planting, but by 1940, it had escaped and now colonizes road corridors and riverbanks.

Because it is a legume, it has special nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots that enable it to colonize even poor soils, and it produces copious amounts of seeds that spread and either sprout or form a nearly indestructable seed bank in the soil.

The spread of this beautiful plant is so substantial that it is altering the habitat along riverbanks and waterways, which in turn changes river habitats and thus the ability of different fish species to thrive, according to Gederaas.



First Norway, then the world?



Gederaas and her colleagues were surprised by the extent to which the 2007 Black List was used by different communities across Norway.  The Biodiversity Information Centre also offers the existing list in a searchable, electronic version, along with detailed fact sheets for some of the most common or problematic species.



"The plan calls for translating the new classification scheme into English," she says.

Currently, there is no commonly agreed-upon international approach to quantitatively assessing risks from alien species – which leaves a gap that the Norwegian approach could fill.

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NTNU is the second largest of the eight universities in Norway, and has the main national responsibility for higher education in engineering and technology. Read more

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