American signal crayfish

Certain invasive, non-native species can disrupt lakes to the point of rapid ecosystem collapse, contaminating water for drinking, aquaculture and recreation, a new study has found.

Simply undoing the circumstances that triggered a tipping point will not restore the ecosystem - the road to recovery is slow and steep.

Sam Reynolds

Human activity and climate change are causing invasive non-native species to spread rapidly across the globe. Researchers have found that certain invasive species can push lake ecosystems beyond a critical ‘tipping point’, causing a sudden shift from healthy to degraded conditions that is difficult to reverse. 

Invasive fish such as Asian silver carp Hypophthalmichthys molitrix, and crustaceans such as American signal crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, were found to significantly reduce the abundance of other important organisms in lakes and degrade water quality. The findings, published today in the journal Global Change Biology, also provide guidance on the best ways to manage waterbodies.

Shallow lakes naturally exist in one of two alternative stable states: either healthy - with clear water with an abundance of vegetation, or degraded - with cloudy water dominated by algae. When a lake is in the latter state, algae use up all the nutrients in the water and block sunlight, preventing the growth of aquatic vegetation that would aid ecosystem recovery. 

Deteriorated, algae-dominated freshwater ecosystems also threaten the health and water security of human populations. Blooms of cyanobacteria, known as ‘blue-green algae’ can produce toxins that contaminate food webs and poison water supplies.

“Algal blooms represent one of the most significant threats to the security of the Earth’s surface freshwaters. Simply undoing the circumstances that triggered a tipping point will not restore the ecosystem - the road to recovery is slow and steep,” said Dr Sam Reynolds in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, first author of the report. 

However, although invasive species are recognised as a significant threat to global biodiversity, their impacts on ecosystem services may not be uniformly negative. Invasive molluscs, including the zebra mussel Dreissena polymorpha, were found to engineer the opposite biological and environmental response: they delay ecosystem collapse and potentially aid the recovery of degraded lake ecosystems.  

“Managers of drinking water reservoirs, for example, may be able to avoid the cost of dealing with blooms of harmful algae, by removing invasive crayfish but allowing established non-native zebra mussels to remain and act as biological filters,” said Professor David Aldridge, senior author of the report. 

He added: “Early detection and rapid response plans should always be our first line of attack. But in situations where invaders have already established and can no longer be eradicated, it may be appropriate to embrace their positive effects.”

The researchers focused on shallow lake ecosystems, but say that their framework could be applied to other critical ecosystems that experience catastrophic tipping points - such as coral reefs, kelp forests and desert shrublands.

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reynolds, SA & Aldridge, DC: 'Global impacts of invasive species on the tipping points of shallow lakes'. Global Change Biology, October 2021. DOI 10.1111/gcb.15893

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