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.

The Water Scarcity Problem That’s Destroying Countries Pt. 1: The Situation

Guest Blog by John Hawthorne

Clean water. It’s something almost all of us take for granted. We turn on the tap, fill our cup, let some spill over, and then guzzle it down. It’s a privilege we fail to recognize. There is a colossal water scarcity problem in the world. Millions of people struggle to find enough clean water to survive. In order to move toward a solution, we need to first understand the problem. In this post, we’re going to help you understand the how, what, and why of the water scarcity problem.

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The Staggering Lack Of Clean Water In The World

Over 884 million people worldwide live without clean water. In order to better comprehend that staggering number, that’s the equivalent of:

  • 1 in every 10 people on the planet’s surface.
  • Twice the population of the United States.
  • The whole of Europe.

And as the years fly by and overpopulation becomes an increasingly difficult problem to solve, that number continues trending upward, inflating and growing, but never going down. Water scarcity is a harsh reality.

By the year 2018, some 1.1 billion people worldwide will lack access to any sort of water, and a total of 2.7 billion will find water scarce for at least one month of the year. Out of those figures, 2.4 billion will have inadequate water sources and have to deal with a series of life threatening diseases. A vast majority of the world population will regularly experience outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, malaria, zika, and dozens of other water borne illnesses and parasites.

In the year 2014, two million people died from diarrheal viruses and the ensuing complications. Out of those numbers, 43 percent were pre-adolescent children, most under the age of five. Access to basic sanitation and clean affordable water, can save over 17 thousands folks a week. The majority of people afflicted by this problem live in desolate, isolated, poor regions. These are often rural places that in often find themselves embroiled in some sort of political challenges.

In many cases, water, not oil, is the most precious commodity for these disenfranchised citizens, with warlords and local mafias using the resource as a means of power and political pressure. Access to clean water is of paramount importance for those without it. There are millions of people risking their lives and spending hours just for a clean gallon of water. Children go without any education, their sole responsibility trodding dozens of miles a day and fetching water.

In essence, a community without a viable source of clean water is destined for extinction. Clean water means economic growth, education, better income and healthy neighborhoods. And the outlook isn’t any better:

By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Although the surface of our planet is covered mainly by water, over 73 percent to be exact, only 3 percent of it is considered drinkable. And, to complicate matters, only ⅓ of that scant number is accessible to humans (the rest is tucked away in glaciers, and remote regions). Finding fresh water sources is an incredibly rare thing.

Overpopulation and consumption has put a strain on an already depleted ecosystem. Many water systems, like lakes, rivers and aquifers are drying up an alarming rate or, due to our meddling, becoming far too polluted to use. Agriculture, above all other practices, consumes enormous amounts of water, more than any other industry. These precious resources are consumed in an ineffective manner.

Additionally, in impoverished regions, such as Africa (where thousands die from a result of having zero access to clean water) or in Pakistan (where the shortage has claimed ⅓ of its population), a different set of problems assaults the region: economic water scarcity. In most of these districts, water treatment plants and “soluble” wells and aquifers are nothing more than open holes in dry river beds. In Tanzania, this last practice led to devastating epidemic that slashed their population by 75% in the late 2013.

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What Is Economic Water Scarcity?

In order to understand the water crisis, we need to understand the concept of economic water scarcity. Economic water scarcity is a term that begun having a wide range appeal in mid-2007. It was defined, after a rather long and investigative essay, as a condition caused by the lack of investment in water infrastructure.

The concept first came into play after researchers and policymakers, overseen by the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka, conducted a 50 year study to determine the viability of sustaining life on Earth with the growing population problem. Their findings were less than hopeful.

One on the prime symptoms of economic water scarcity is a region’s capacity, both technological as well as human, to satisfy the area’s demand for drinkable water. It is a critical and typical manifestation of underdeveloped countries.

 

John Hawthorne is a health nut from Canada with a passion for travel and taking part in humanitarian efforts. His writing not only solves a creative need it has also lead to many new opportunities when traveling abroad. This article was split into two parts and republished with his permission.