Papyrus and Phragmites: Invasive Species

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and Economics. Her research this summer is on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. Her earlier NWNL blogs were: Wild Salmon v Hatchery Salmon and Buffalo, Bison & Water.

 

My 3rd NWNL blog on biodiversity compares papyrus in Africa and phragmites in North America. I will highlight both flora’s ecological benefits, ecological threats and impacts to water, as well as solutions to prevent their uncontrollable spread.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a tall, aquatic perennial shrub, ranging from 8 to 10 feet in height. This invasive species rooted into the ground, bearing simple brown fruit with brown/cream/green colored flowers, forms floating islands in tropical African swamps, rivers and lakes. In non-native habitats, papyrus will spread and invade the space of other native plants unless pruned. Commonly known as the “Paper Reed,” papyrus is native to Egypt and Sudan along the Nile River in North Africa, a NWNL case-study watershed. Papyrus is now also found in two other NWNL case-study watersheds: along Ethiopia’s Omo River (where damming has stabilized water levels allowing roots to take hold) and Tanzania’s Mara River Estuary.

Papyrus in Uganda .jpgPapyrus in Uganda (Creative Commons)

Once a well-known resource for paper making, today papyrus has potential for biofuel production. Papyrus also has many ecological benefits. Its value ranges from assimilating significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to providing breeding grounds for fish species, and feeding grounds for grazing herbivores.

In its native habitat, papyrus lines bodies of water, serving as a filtration system for removing sediments, sewage, and heavy metals that pollute the water. However, papyrus poses ecological threats to introduced environments, such as Italy and the United States, after being imported for ornamental use. Since it is invasive, papyrus disrupts ecosystems, threatens the growth of the native species, and impedes the flow of waterways. Papyrus will continue to expand problematically in introduced ecosystems if temperature warming continues to increase.

Jones_091003_TZ_1505.jpgPapyrus blooms in the Mara River Basin, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Major impacts papyrus has on non-native water ecosystems include: reducing native biodiversity by altering habitat; threatening the loss of native species; altering trophic levels; modifying hydrology; modifying natural benthic communities; and negatively impacting aquaculture and fisheries.

Solutions to prevent further papyrus spread into other ecosystems are the use of  physical, biological, and chemical controls. Physically, we could cut down and rake up the shrub. Biologically, we could use a novel fungal isolate that releases a phytotoxin to inhibit the growth of papyrus. And chemically, herbicides are a successful method to control papyrus spread.

Jones_091002_TZ_1209.jpgWoman collecting water in the Masurua Swamp with Papyrus in the background, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is a tall perennial grass that can grow up to 15 feet or more in height, with dense clusters of purple fluffy flower heads. Referred to as the “Common Reed,” this species is native to Eurasia and Africa. Our focus is on its impact in North America. Outside of its native habitat, phragmites is “cryptic invasive,” meaning that as this non-native species spreads within another native species’ range, it will typically go unnoticed due to its misidentification for the native species. Phragmites ideal habitat is marsh communities bordering lakes, ponds and rivers. Phragmites are present in the Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin, and Raritan River Basin, the three North American NWNL case-study watersheds.

Jones_160414_NJ_3373.jpgPhragmites on the Raritan Bay, NJ (© Alison Jones)

The ecological benefits phragmites provide include improving habitat and water quality by filtration and nutrient removal, serving as shelter for birds and insects, as well as providing food for sparrows. Phragmites also help to stabilize soil against erosion. In light of climate change, this species is beneficial because its accretion rate keeps up with rising sea levels for protection.

Phragmites benefit marsh lands because of their ability to take up 3x more carbon than other native plants. When there is excessive carbon in the atmosphere sea level rises and allows for more frequent and intense storms, so keeping phragmites could help better protect marshes from rising sea levels and erosion. Phragmites also help build up more soil below the ground compared to native plants.

CT-NWK-514.jpgPhragmites at sunrise in Norwalk, CT (© Alison Jones)

Some ecological threats phragmites pose are as follows. Since phragmites grow in thickets by shallow water, they can displace native wetland plants, alter hydrology, and block sunlight from reaching aquatic communities. Phragmites decrease plant biodiversity, causing declines in habitat quality for fish and wildlife. This tall grass can also pose a driving hazard, as it blocks road signs and views around curves. Phragmites can also be a fire hazard when dry biomass is high during its dormant season.

The Neshanic River, a tributary of the Raritan River Basin, provides an example of the threats of non-native invasive phragmites. Here, it grows without regard to competition by suppressing regeneration of native vegetation and limiting biodiversity in the area.

Jones_120430_NY_1751.jpgPhragmites with redwings blackbirds on Long Island, NY (© Alison Jones)

Some solutions to combat the threats phragmites pose are similar to the methods used to control papyrus. Methods used include cutting or mowing the tall grass, applying herbicides (such as Glyphosate or Imazapyr), and controlling the spread of this invasive plant with molecular tools and fungal pathogens. Additional solutions would be to burn the plant, excavate the area, cover the area with plastic causing suffocation, increase plant competition in the area, increase grazing by herbivores, or use of biocontrol organisms (such as insect herbivores) to combat the spread of phragmites.

Whether in Africa or North America, we can see how detrimental non-native invasive plant species can be to the health of an ecosystem. Although papyrus and phragmites both have some positive benefits, they overwhelmingly impact aquatic habitats negatively with their spread. Thus many have concluded that the best thing to do is limit spread with the solutions suggested above, rather than attempt complete eradication. In some cases, they can become “guest invasives,” welcomed for the services they do supply, especially for wetlands and riverbank stabilization which minimizes storm damage.

 

Bibliography:
Morais, P. PubMed, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Saltonstall, Kristin. PNAS, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Swearingen, J. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link
National Parks Flora & Fauna Web, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link
Plants & Flowers, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Popay, Ian. CABI, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Hazelton, Eric. Annals of Botany Company, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Sturtevant, R. Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, accessed June 14, 2018, via link.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018, via link.
Oregon Department of Agriculture. Plant Pest Risk Assessment, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Hauber, Donald P. Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Gaudet, John. Papyrus, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Jackson, Harrison. Phragmites invasion: Detrimental or beneficial? Accessed on July 25, 2018, via link.

Cape Buffalo, Bison and Water

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and minoring in Economics. Her research this summer is on the intertwined relationships of biodiversity and our water resources. This is Bianca’s second blog on Biodiversity for NWNL. Read her first blog on wild Salmon here.

This blog compares how water impacts the health of sub-Sahara’s Cape buffalo populations to how North America’s bison impact the health of our water resources.  This investigation covers three of our NWNL case study watersheds: Africa’s Mara and Nile River Basins, and North America’s Mississippi River Basin.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is found in Kenya’s Mara River Basin savanna and Uganda’s Nile River Basin plains. The bison (Bison bison) used to dominate the Mississippi River Basin’s Great Plains and are still there in scattered small populations. Both species are large, herbivorous mammals that primarily graze on tall-grass ecosystems. However, their habitats and connections to water differ significantly.

Africa’s Cape buffalo migrate seasonally in large herds on cyclical routes dependent on fluctuations in water availability. They move out of areas with limited resources and into areas where moisture and nutrients are available. Cape buffalo also migrate away from their habitat when water levels increase, since flooding restricts their foraging abilities. In these cases, Cape buffalo move to a drier habitat where, in turn, they may experience drought. Either way, when resources become low, their vulnerability becomes high.

Jones_090927_K_9062.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (© Alison M. Jones)

Africa’s famed Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is located throughout northern Tanzania and extends into Kenya. Much of this region is situated within the Mara River Basin. In the Serengeti National Park, the migration pattern of the Cape buffalo, similar to that of the wildebeest-zebra migration, is dependent on the fluctuation of rainfall each year. Generally, this journey begins in April when Cape buffalo depart their southern plains habitat to head north. This movement is triggered by the onset of heavy rain that floods the plains, reducing the Cape buffalo’s ability to graze. By May the herd is in the northwest Serengeti, where the dry season lasts through July and proximity to the equator allows rainfall to be more evenly distributed, allowing greater opportunities for foraging. Then, in August, the late dry season hits, causing the herd to move further north. On their venture north, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. The Cape buffalo remain here enjoying green pastures until November, albeit subject to drought if there’s no rainfall. In December, usually the first rainfall comes which they sense as the onset of the rainy season. They then trek back into Tanzania’s southern plains for the wet season. From January to April, they graze there on plentiful, nutritious grasses.  

Syncerus-caffer-Masaai-Mara-Kenya.JPGHerd of Cape buffalo in Kenya’s Mara Conservancy (Creative Commons)

When Cape buffalo inhabit dry lands their reproductive success (also referred to as “recruitment ability”) decreases; but their body condition improves due to what seems to be a fat-storing mechanism that anticipates limited future resources. One benefit of Cape buffalo having to cope with drought is that when food supplies are reduced, they forage through peat layers in dried-up underground channels, releasing nutrients otherwise trapped below ground.

A current major concern for this species is that anthropogenic factors (human activity) causing climate change are expected to increase both water levels and drought, which could push the Cape buffalo outside of their protected areas. In 2017, the Serengeti experienced a drought that lasted over a year causing declines in populations of many species, including Cape buffalo. Drought also causes herds of cattle, goats and sheep outside to enter protected lands to graze, creating a competition for resources between wildlife, livestock and humans in both the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park. If the Mara River – the only major river in the area – dries up, there would be few resources for ungulates. As well, when droughts end, there is always potential for flash-floods which deter herds from crossing rivers to find greener pastures.

Jones_120107_K_0640.jpgA lone Cape Buffalo bull in Kenya (© Alison M. Jones)

When water is scarce in the Serengeti, a decline of Cape buffalo leads to increased lion mortality. When Cape buffalo lack sufficient food due to drought, they become weak and must travel increased distances to quench their thirst. This leaves the herd fatigued, causing some members to fall behind and thus become more vulnerable to predation. Also, after a drought and the rains begin, Babesia-carrying ticks infect Cape buffalo. Infected buffalo become weak or die, allowing easy predation by lions. Unfortunately, their carcasses transfer babesiosis disease to lions. Alone, this disease is not fatal to the lion. However, babesiosis coupled with canine distemper virus (CDV) is lethal.

Babesiosis from Cape buffalo has caused two major declines in Serengeti lion populations. In 1994, a third of the lion population was lost due to this combination, killing over 1,000 lions.

Lions_taking_down_cape_buffalo.jpgLions taking down a Cape buffalo (Creative Commons)

On a smaller scale, in 2001 the Ngorongoro Crater lion population also lost about 100 lions due to this synchronization of disease. Craig Packer, a University of Minnesota biologist, stated, “Should drought occur in the future at the same time as lions are exposed to masses of Babesia-carrying ticks—and there is a synchronous CDV epidemic–lions will once again suffer very high mortality.” He also warns that extreme weather due to climate change puts species at greater risk to diseases not considered a major threat before.  Fortunately, mud-wallowing that Cape buffalo use to cool down their bodies is also an effective shield against infiltrating bugs and ticks once the mud dries.

Overall, Cape buffalo rely heavily on rainfall patterns; but climate change is disrupting traditional migratory patterns by raising water levels or causing drought. Both extremes present negative impacts to the Mara River Basin and the biodiversity that inhabits it.  

North America’s bison – a bovine counterpart to African Cape buffalo – historically occupied The Great Plains west of the Mississippi River. Early settlers recorded 10 to 60 million bison openly roaming the fields. Like Cape buffalo, bison also migrate in search of food. Their migration paths used to cover vast territory, thus paving the way for many current roads and railroads. A major threat to  bison – as with most species – has been habitat loss due to human infringement, as well as well-documented, extensive hunting by new settlers heading west. By 1889, only approximately 1,000 bison remained in North America.

Jones_121024_TX_6814.jpgFarmed bison in Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Due to recent conservation efforts, bison populations are rising; however, not to past numbers. Currently, they are found only in National Parks, refuges and farms. As of 2017, approximately 31,000 pure wild bison remain in 68 conservation herds. “Pure wild bison” are those not bred with cattle for domestication. However, only approximately 18,000 of the remaining population “function” as wild bison. This count excludes very small bison herds used for research, education and public viewing – or bison held in captivity waiting to be culled by protected areas such as Yellowstone National Park due to required limits.

Bison inhabiting the Mississippi River Basin, which drains throughout the Great Plains, have many positive impacts on its waterways and tributaries. Yellowstone Park, where the Yellowstone River drains into the Missouri-Mississippi River system, is the only place in North America where bison continue to freely roam as they used to. In Yellowstone, bison occupy the central and northern area of the park where they migrate by elevation, seasonally choosing food according to abundance, rather than quality. In the winter, they select lower elevations near thermal hot springs or rivers where there is less snow accumulation.

Bison positively affect water supplies when they wallow and paw at the ground. This results in intense soil compaction that creates soil depressions in grasslands. After many years, this soil depression tends to erode since bison don’t like to wallow on previously-created depressions. However, during the rainy season, wetland plants and vegetation grow in these wallows created by bison dust-bathing and trampling. For a short time many species enjoy these ephemeral pool habitats before they disappear in droughts or floods. Meanwhile bison wallows increase species diversity that would otherwise not be present in grasslands.

A_bison_wallow_is_a_shallow_depression_in_the_soil.jpgBison rolling around in a dry wallow (Creative Commons)

Bison have other positive impacts on water. As they trample through streams, they widen available habitat and alter water quality. Even after a bison dies, it can still contribute to the health of its ecosystem. Their carcasses are a nutritious food source for wolves, coyotes and crows. Studies suggest that bison carcasses take roughly seven years to fully decompose, during which time their remains release nutrients such as phosphorus and carbon into rivers. These nutrients sustain microbes, insects, fish and large scavengers of the area. A bison carcass can also provide sustenance for local fish since maggots, green algae and bacteria grow over their bones during decomposition. Bison carcasses also deposit nutrients into the soil which fertilizes plant regrowth.

Bison can negatively affect water resources, by decreasing native plant diversity due to overgrazing. However, they graze on only grass, which allows forbs (non-woody flowering plants) to flourish, adding biodiversity in grasslands. As well, when bison urinate, they deposit nitrogen into the soil, a key nutrient for grass growth and survival. Their urine also becomes a selectable marker allowing them to return to formerly-grazed pastures during the season. This constant reselection of grassland, allows combustion in ignored, non-grazed pastures, since fire tends to occur in tall grass with nitrogen loss. After fires, the bison are attracted to newly-burned watersheds because of C4-dominated grass which grows in dry environments. Bison select C4-dominated grassy areas because they have low plant diversity, unlike less-frequently burned sites where forbs are abundant. Thus, bison’s pasture preferences allow for more biodiversity, creating healthier watersheds.  

Jones_121024_TX_7314.jpgMural near of Native Americans on bison near Masterson, Texas (© Alison M. Jones)

Each of these two similar bovine species have significant, but different, relationships to water availability and quality within their river basins.  The African Cape buffalo migration is guided by water fluctuations. This could impact their future since anthropogenically-caused climate change could incur longer and more frequent droughts and increased flood-water levels to an extent that would drive Cape buffalo out of their protected habitats. In contrast, North American bison herds improve the health of waterways in the Mississippi River Basin in several ways. Nutrients from their decomposing carcasses add to the health of tributary streams and rivers; and their mud wallows support greater diversity of wetland and grassland flora.

Whether we look at watersheds in Africa or North America, it is clear that it is as important to study how biodiversity is affected by water availability, as how watershed water quality and quantity affects its biodiversity. Any changes to these ecosystems due to climate change could drastically affect the biodiversity and health of these watersheds.

Bibliography:

Briske, David. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
van Wyk, Pieter. MalaMala Game Reserve Blog, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Bennitt, Emily. Journal of Mammalogy, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Wilcox, Bradford. Springer Series on Environmental Management, accessed June 19, 2018, via link.
Chardonnet, Philippe. Gnusletter, accessed on June 19, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Coppedge, Bryan R.
The American Midland Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Polley, H. Wayne.
The Southwestern Naturalist, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Crow, Diana.
Smithsonian, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
Knapp, Alan K.
American Institute of Biological Sciences, accessed on June 20, 2018, via link.
North Arizona University, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.Dybas, Cheryl Lyn.
BioScience, accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Water Resources and Energy Management (WREM) International Inc., accessed on June 25, 2018, via link.
Defenders of Wildlife, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Yellowstone National Park, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Huffman, Brent. Ultimate Ungulate, accessed on June 26, 2018, via link.
Department of Primary Industries, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Popescu, Adam. New Scientist, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.
Hoagland, Mahlon B. Exploring the Way Life Works: The Science of Biology, accessed on July 9, 2018E, via link.
White, PJ. Yellowstone Association, accessed on July 9, 2018, via link.

NWNL “Pool of Books” 2017

NWNL has compiled a list of new and old favorite books about water issues and our case-study watersheds for your reference for gifts and for the New Year. Many of the authors and publishers are personal friends of NWNL. All of them are worth reading. The links provided below go to Amazon Smile, where a portion of all purchases go to an organization of the buyers choice. Please help support NWNL by selecting the International League of Conservation Photographers to donate to.

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Global:

Rainforest by Lewis Blackwell (2014)

Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity by Sandra Postel (2017)

Water from teNeues Publishing (2008)

North America:

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest by Audrey Della Benedict & Joseph K. Gaydos (2015)

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland by Miriam Horn (2016)

The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones (2006)

Yellowstone Migration by Joe Riis (2017)

Sage Spirit: The American West at a Crossroads by Dave Showalter (2015)

Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor by John Waldman (2013)

East Africa:

Serengeti Shall Not Die by Bernhard & Michael Grzimek (1973)

Turkana: Lenya’s Nomads of the Jade Sea by Nigel Pavitt (1997)

To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman (2004)

India:

A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka by Meera Subramanian (2015)

World Conservation Day 2017

In honor of World Conservation Day, NWNL wants to share some of it’s favorite photographs from over the years of each of our case-study watersheds.

Trout Lake in the Columbia River Basin
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Aerial view of the largest tributary of the Lower Omo River
Ethiopia: aerial of Mago River, largest tributary of Lower Omo River

 

Canoeing on the Mississippi River
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Fisherman with his canoe on the shore of Lake Tana, source of the Nile River
Ethiopia: Lake Tana, source of the blue Nile, fisherman and canoe on the shore.

 

Wildebeests migrating toward water in the Mara Conservancy
K-WIB-410.tif

 

Raritan River at sunset
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All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Just So We Can Survive, We Must Change….

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories charmed Victorian readers with tales such as how the leopard got his spots. In re-reading this childhood classic, I was struck with the idea of Kipling’s whimsy being a parable for climate change adaptation and coping techniques. So…

Adaptation in the Mara River Basin paired with Kipling’s Words

“There was sand and sandy-coloured rock and ‘sclusively tufts of sandy-yellowish grass. The Giraffe and the Zebra and the Eland and the Koodoo and the Hartebeest lived there; and they were ‘sclusively sand-yellow-brownish all over, but the Leopard, he was the ‘sclusivest sandiest-yellowest-brownest of them all.

Jones_030727_K_0243

An Ethiopian with bows and arrows (a ‘sclusively greyish-brownish-yellowish man he was then), lived on the High Veldt with the Leopard, and the two used to hunt together – the Ethiopian with his bows and arrows, and the Leopard ‘sclusively with his teeth and claws.

East Africa, Kenya, Maasai (aka Masai) Mara NR, Rekero

… The Giraffe and the Eland and the Koodoo and the Quagga and all the rest of them… learned to avoid anything that looked like a Leopard or an Ethiopian and bit by bit… they went away…. They scuttled for days and days and days till they came to a great forest, ‘sclusively full of trees and bushes and stripy,speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows, and there they hid….

Then [the Ethiopian and the leopard] met Baviaan, — the dog-headed, barking Baboon, who is Quite the Wisest Animal in All South Africa. Said Leopard to Baviaan (and it was a very hot day), Where has all the game gone?”

And Baviaan winked. He knew….

Jones_120107_K_0844

Then said Baviaan, “The aboriginal Fauna has joined the aboriginal Flora because it was high time for a change, and my advice to you Ethiopian, is to change as soon as you can.” ….

[The Ethiopian then said,] “The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice He told me I ought to change, and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin. I’m going to change that … to a nice working blackish-brownish colour with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees….”

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“Umm…, I’ll take spots, then, said the Leopard…. The Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard…   “Now you are a beauty! Said the Ethiopian. “You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves, and you can lie aright across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!”

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So they went away and lived happily ever afterward, Best Beloved. That is all.”

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Even invasive species can be beautiful

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds. It is characterized by rapid growth rate, extensive reproductive output and broad environmental resistance. It creates dense mats of vegetation that restrict oxygen in water, causing deterioration in water quality, fish mortality and declining biodiversity. A healthy acre of the plant can weigh 200 tons! These floating masses block waterways and harbors, costing millions of dollars of damage every year.
Water hyacinth grows in lakes, estuaries, wetlands, rivers, dams, and irrigation channels on every continent except Antarctica.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 1.45.53 PM– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Lichen is part of the biodiversity of vegetation in our watersheds and serves as tool for water retention.

Kenya: Mau Forest, source of the Mara River
Kenya: Mau Forest, source of the Mara River

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director