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Keystone Species

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

A keystone species is one whose presence has inordinate influence in maintaining the prevalence of various species in an ecosystem, the ecological community’s structure, and sometimes its biodiversity. Pisaster ochraceus, the intertidal sea star, is a keystone species in the northwestern portion of the United States (Figure 19.25). Studies have shown that when this organism is removed from communities, mussel populations (their natural prey) increase, which completely alters the species composition and reduces biodiversity. Another keystone species is the banded tetra, a fish in tropical streams, which supplies nearly all of the phosphorus, a necessary inorganic nutrient, to the rest of the community. The banded tetra feeds largely on insects from the terrestrial ecosystem and then excretes phosphorus into the aquatic ecosystem. The relationships between populations in the community, and possibly the biodiversity, would change dramatically if these fish were to become extinct.

Figure 19.25 The Pisaster ochraceus sea star is a keystone species. (credit: Jerry Kirkhart) 


Invasive Species

Invasive species are non-native organisms that, when introduced to an area out of its native range, alter the community they invade. In the United States, invasive species like the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) have altered aquatic ecosystems, and some forests are threatened by the spread of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Some well-known invasive animals include the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) and the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Whether enjoying a forest hike, taking a summer boat trip, or simply walking down an urban street, you have likely encountered an invasive species.

One of the many recent proliferations of an invasive species concerns the Asian carp in the United States. Asian carp were introduced to the United States in the 1970s by fisheries (commercial catfish ponds) and by sewage treatment facilities that used the fish’s excellent filter feeding abilities to clean their ponds of excess plankton. Some of the fish escaped, and by the 1980s they had colonized many waterways of the Mississippi River basin, including the Illinois and Missouri Rivers.

Voracious feeders and rapid reproducers, Asian carp may outcompete native species for food and could lead to their extinction. One species, the grass carp, feeds on phytoplankton and aquatic plants. It competes with native species for these resources and alters nursery habitats for other fish by removing aquatic plants. Another species, the silver carp, competes with native fish that feed on zooplankton. In some parts of the Illinois River, Asian carp constitute 95 percent of the community's biomass. Although edible, the fish is bony and not desired in the United States. Moreover, their presence now threatens the native fish and fisheries of the Great Lakes, which are important to local economies and recreational anglers. Asian carp have even injured humans. The fish, frightened by the sound of approaching motorboats, thrust themselves into the air, often landing in the boat or directly hitting boaters.

The Great Lakes and their prized salmon and lake trout fisheries are being threatened by Asian carp. The carp are not yet present in the Great Lakes, and attempts are being made to prevent its access to the lakes through the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which is the only connection between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. To prevent the Asian carp from leaving the canal, a series of electric barriers have been used to discourage their migration; however, the threat is significant enough that several states and Canada have sued to have the Chicago channel permanently cut off from Lake Michigan. Local and national politicians have weighed in on how to solve the problem. In general, governments have been ineffective in preventing or slowing the introduction of invasive species.

The issues associated with Asian carp show how population and community ecology, fisheries management, and politics intersect on issues of vital importance to the human food supply and economy. Socio-political issues like the Asian carp make extensive use of the sciences of population ecology, the study of members of a particular species occupying a habitat; and community ecology, the study of the interaction of all species within a habitat.