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Invasive species can quickly upset nature’s balance

spotted lanternfly
Spotted Lanternfly

Virginia is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, most of which originated here and developed over thousands of years to adapt to the natural environment. These native species live in balance with one another, giving and taking to the benefit of the greater ecosystem.

But other species were brought here from far away, and can swiftly tilt that balance. These invasive species might be plants (like English ivy) or animals (like the European starling), but what they have in common is the potential to wreak havoc — not just on the local habitat, but also on the economy and even human health.

It’s important to note that not all non-native species are harmful. In fact, some of our most treasured plants and animals came from overseas. The honeybee was brought from Europe in the 17th century, and the peanut likely came from South America.

What makes a non-native species invasive is its potential to outcompete native species, cause disease or damage crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a National Invasive Species Information Center to serve as a single reference point on plants and animals that could pose a problem around the country — or already do.

One example is the spotted lanternfly, a newcomer that arrived in Pennsylvania in 2016 and has already infested more than 200 square miles in Virginia. Native to East Asia, it feasts on fruit crops and has a particular fondness for grapes, which has sent vineyards all over the East Coast scrambling for solutions.

It came to the United States the way many invasive species do: by hitching a ride on a shipment of goods from overseas. But some invasive species are brought here on purpose. Burmese pythons were brought here as exotic pets, but they now threaten the native wildlife of southern Florida. Golden bamboo was brought to Alabama from China in the late 1800s for ornamental landscaping, but now dominates many forested areas around the southeastern United States. 

Bamboo is just one of the many species that threatens Virginia’s native plants, which are an important food source for wildlife. Some of these took root by accident ( Japanese stiltgrass was used as a packing material for porcelain imported from Asia in the early 20th century) but many of them are still deliberately planted for pretty, low-maintenance landscapes. Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden educates its visitors on some of the more common culprits and how to make their yards a sanctuary for native flora and fauna. 

Because most invasive species are either plants or invertebrate animals, very few end up at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. But the center does sometimes see non-native birds, reptiles and mammals among their patients. Unfortunately, when the animal has been positively identified as an invasive species, it must be humanely euthanized in accordance with state permitting regulations. It’s an outcome that no one likes, but it helps to prevent further harm to Virginia’s natural environment.

What You Can Do!

  • Avoid planting invasive plant species, no matter how pretty or low-maintenance they may be, and remove them when you spot them in your yard.
  • If you enjoy boating or fishing, be careful not to inadvertently encourage invasive species in the waterways you enjoy. Check out these preventive measures before your next outing.
  • Be careful with exotic pets. Don’t release pet turtles, snakes or fish into the wild when you can no longer care for them. If you think these animals might eventually wear out their welcome in your home, don't get them in the first place.
  • If you’re an international traveler, be careful not to bring home items that could cause a problem. Plants, fruits and other organic souvenirs could threaten health and safety here at home, or provide an easy spot for small creatures to hide on the ride home with you.
  • Ask your garden center about native plants that will beautify your garden and even attract birds and butterflies.
  • Check out The Wildlife Center of Virginia to learn more about the wild animals around you and how you can help keep them safe.