By Jenny Staltovich
The pet trade, plant nurseries and international shipping ports have long been blamed for spreading destructive invasive species in Florida.
But there’s another, less understood super spreader: hurricanes.
The powerful storms can transport species with high winds and flood water. They can also cause more enduring damage by wiping out native habitat, clearing the way for exotic species.
“They take hold and you have this alternative ecosystem and it’s hard to go back,” said Luke Flory, an ecologist at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “And then those invasive plants may have a different ecosystem function. They may not provide protection for the coastline for future hurricanes.”
But what if scientists could predict that spread, like a hurricane forecast track, once a storm hits?
That’s what Flory hopes could eventually come from a massive mapping project he and a team of researchers have undertaken.
“If we can identify invasions when they’re small,” he said, “we can manage them and remove them before they become large and more destructive.”
For their project, they’re looking at two of the state’s most destructive invasive plant species, Brazilian pepper and Old World climbing fern. State and federal wildlife managers spend about $45 million annually on invasive plants, with these two accounting for the lion’s share. By mapping them now, they can study how the plants respond to tropical storms and hurricanes and eventually provide forecasts.