When most people think of the introduction of an invasive species in a new ecosystem, they generally perceive this as a bad thing. Rightly so, invasive species have been largely responsible for destroying native populations of many flora and fauna. However, in some circumstances, the introduction of a new foreign plant or animal may actually be a benefit in some regard.
This is especially true in the Florida Everglades, as the region has been subjected to repeated and continued development expansions. This results in many native species of animals and plants being displaced and, ultimately, destroyed. The Florida snail kite is one of these animals, a bird of prey that exclusively feeds on the apple snails indigenous to the region. However, recently a different foreign species has been experiencing a population boom in the Florida Everglades, this being the island apple snail from South America. This has saved the snail kite, and researchers are stunned to see it happen.
In the 19th century, there was a major push in Florida to develop the everglades due to the push of migrants to develop plantations. As a result, canals were created all throughout the region, which spurred the South Florida economy. The Miami metropolitan area grew substantially throughout this time, and water was diverted from the Everglades to Miami. Approximately 50% of the land of the original Everglades has been developed into agricultural or urban areas.
As development has continued, this has destroyed populations of apple snails, which has led to the endangerment of the snail kite. All this development came at a direct cost for the Everglades, and in 1970 they came under the direct attention of conservation groups. Shortly after snail kite populations began to drop, the invasive species island apple snails began to boom.
Researchers are unsure where this came from, but aquarium release has been speculated to be a probable cause. These snails are indigenous to South America and have saved the snail kite from extinction. Snail kites are uniquely adapted to the Everglades and specifically only eat apple snails. They were the first species to be added to the endangered species registry in the 1960s, and by 2007 there were less than 800 remaining. However, as of last year, there are more than 3000 snail kites.
Not all are excited about this development, however, and Robert Fletcher, a researcher in the Everglades, is worried about the long-term effects of the island apple snails in the region. He says, “What we should be thinking about is how do we restore native snails to get those benefits rather than relying on this non-native species that can have detrimental impacts on the ecosystem.”
The destruction of ecosystems from human development and expansion is sometimes unseen but incredibly impactful nonetheless. The economic growth from the development in the Everglades has resulted in windfalls for farm owners and residents living in the area. Still, it has come at the cost of the diverse array of species living within the ecosystem. Ultimately, we should be looking at ways to restore the native species to their pre-development population levels and rewilding areas that are currently farmland and residential districts.
However, in the meantime, what’s being shown is that one invasive species is helping to save another. And for now, that’s been the driving force behind the continued existence of the remarkable snail kite.