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Alien species on the rise worldwide

Alien species on the rise worldwide

15 February 2017 - New research shows rates of alien species’ introduction are higher than ever. The increase in numbers of alien species does not show any sign of saturation at a global level, an international team of 45 researchers led by scientists from Senckenberg, Germany, and University of Vienna, Austria, has discovered. CABI’s Dr Marc Kenis, based in Switzerland, participated in the study as an expert in insect invasions in Europe, and the CABI Invasive Species Compendium was used as one of the main information sources for biological invasions worldwide. Researchers found that during the last centuries the number of new introductions has continuously increased worldwide, with more than a third of all first introductions recorded between 1970 and 2014. Although individual trends differ among taxonomic groups, the ongoing increase in alien species numbers is still visible for all groups of organisms. The study is published in Nature Communications.

Invasive species pose a serious threat to the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide. In 2016, CABI developed a major new initiative to protect vulnerable rural communities in the fight against invasive species. Building on its 100-year track record in invasive species management, the organisation will deliver a unique global programme to support 50 million vulnerable African and Asian farming families impacted by species that are out of control and threatening their livelihoods.

Although it was known that the number of alien species increased during the last decades, it remained unclear whether or not the accumulation of alien species has already reached a point of slow-down. Dr Hanno Seebens from Senckenberg, Germany, first author a new study on the topic has an answer now: “For all groups of organisms on all continents, the number of alien species has increased continuously during the last 200 years. For most groups, even the rate of introduction is highest recently. Barring mammals and fishes, there are no signs of a slow-down and we have to expect more new invasions in the near future.”

His outlook comes at the end of a large collaborative effort in which 45 scientists from all over the world established a database of the date an alien species was first detected in a region outside the species’ native range. Using more than 45.000 of these first records of more than 16.000 alien species, they analysed the development of alien species accumulation during the last centuries.

They found that 37% of all recorded alien species have been introduced between 1970-2014 and thus recently. At its peak 585 new species were recorded within one year. This corresponds to more than 1.5 new alien species per day globally. “As the date of first record is not available for most alien species, these numbers are clearly underestimating the full extent of alien species introductions”, says Dr. Franz Essl from the University of Vienna, Austria, senior author of the study.

The trends of increase vary among taxonomic groups, which can be attributed to human activities. “We observe a distinct increase in first record rates of vascular plants in the 19th century, probably as a result of the intensification of horticulture. The rates of new introductions of other organisms such as algae, molluscs or insects increased steeply after 1950. This is most likely a consequence of the ongoing globalisation of trade,” explains Seebens.

The unprecedented increase in alien species numbers can lead to an increase in regional species richness. However, these come at the cost of a variety of negative impacts on native ecosystems, the global homogenisation of floras and faunas, and the global extinction of native biota. Therefore various legislations are currently in force globally attempting to mitigate the introduction of new alien species. “However our results show that the past efforts have not been effective enough to keep up with ongoing globalisation. There is an urgent need to implement more effective prevention policies at all scales”, concludes Essl.

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