Students Fight Fire With Fire, And Stop An Invasion!

By Thomas Mendez

As an avid SCUBA diver in the Great Lakes region, I’ve seen firsthand how an invasive species can cause havoc in an ecosystem. Invasive Zebra and Quagga mussels now blanket the bottom of our Great Lakes. Because of their widespread proliferation without natural predators, it would seem that no solution is in sight. So, when I heard about Westborough High School’s effort to control their local invasive species with another predator species, I was intrigued.

Westborough is a community west of Boston that has a problem with the invasive purple loosestrife plant. This plant is quickly changing the balance of natural wetlands in the area by outcompeting native species. These aggressive plants originated in Europe and Asia. Here in the United States, there are no native predator species that can control purple loosestrife populations. The result is an invasive plant that spreads quickly, causes significant damage to wetlands, reduces native plant coverage and discourages diversity in the local ecosystem.

This is where the students of Westborough High School are making a difference. The environmental studies students, together with the Westborough Community Land Trust, are raising beetles. These aren’t just any beetles, but a specific species, Galerucella, that prey on the purple loosestrife. At first I was leery of this method of species control because the Galerucella beetle itself is not a native species. However, my trust in this method was renewed as I researched the efforts of these motivated students.

The Galerucella beetles the students are raising feed on purple loosestrife almost exclusively. Also, these beetles prefer purple loosestrife and will only reproduce on this plant even when other native species are available. It would seem that these two species’ fates are intertwined. As the beetles feed on the purple loosestrife, the population of purple loosestrife declines, the beetles are forced to move on to another area the purple loosestrife inhabits or naturally die off. Both the USDA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have approved this method of bio-control and have been using it for some time now.

These students are learning valuable environmental lessons while helping to control their local invasive species. This winning combination, classroom education and real world experience that produces a cleaner and healthier environment, provides a lesson students will not forget.

About the author: Thomas Mendez is a Student Temporary Employment Program intern in the Air and Radiation Division in EPA’s Chicago office. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering and is currently finishing up his Master of Science in Environmental Engineering.

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