Last weekend the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) was invaded. Not by E.T. but by aliens of an entirely different sort. Last week was “National Invasive Species Awareness Week”. To celebrate the museum put on an Invasive Species Day, organized by Jen Collins, IZ's liaison to NMNH Education. This past Saturday hundreds of guests had the chance to participate in a myriad of interactive activities, meet experts who work with all types of invasive species, and see some cool specimens from the museum’s collections. Representatives from organizations and NMNH departments participated, including folks from Sentential Plant Network, The Davey Tree Expert Company, NOAA, SERC, USDA, and The Nature Conservancy.
Of course, IZ (the Department of Invertebrate Zoology) was in the thick of the action. Monica Noble (NMNH) and Katrina Lohan (SERC) spoke about the role of shipping in the distribution of invasive species. They also spoke about the National Exotic Marine and Estuarine Species Information Systems, which goes by the wieldier name NEMESIS. NEMESIS is an ongoing project at the Marine Invasions Research Laboratory at SERC (the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center). NEMESIS is a database of comprehensive information on introduced marine and estuarine species with established populations in the United States. So far the database contains information on approximately 500 species and counting! NEMESIS is publicly available so everyone can get involved in the problem of invasive species. If you want to get involved in monitoring invasive inverts check out Mitten Crab Watch.
Many of the United States’ most problematic invertebrate invasive are crustaceans, like the Chinese Mitten Crab and the European Green Crab. They do everything from erode banks to destroy fisheries. NMNH’s Nat Evans and Amanda Windsor hosted “Crustacean Frustration Invasion”. Guests got to a chance to check out many specimens of invasive crustaceans from the museum’s collections, they could even take a closer look under the microscope.
With resident crustacean experts Nat and Amanda to answer questions, this station was a real crowd favorite. In particular the parasitic barnacle Loxothylacus panopaei turned heads. Not only is this barnacle invasive, it is parasitic! Taking over the bodies of crabs, these barnacles essentially turn their hosts into zombies. When the barnacles reproduce the crab host, whether male or female, will feel compelled to protect the barnacle’s brood pouch and forgo any of its normal mating behaviors. (To learn about other parasites that turn their hosts into zombies, check out our previous article). This parasitic barnacle is now causing damage to crab populations outside of its native range.
Not all invasive species are invasive to us here in the United States. Blue crabs, while native to the waters of the western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, are invasive in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in the world. The blue crab specimen at the exhibit was particularly special because the crab is half male and half female. This condition is called bilateral gynandromorphy and it is extremely rare. If you are a regular reader of this blog you may remember our previous article about it. Not surprisingly, this unique specimen was a show stopper. “The crab was my favorite thing” Selena age 9 said of the gender bending crustacean. Aiden also age 9 agreed, saying that the coolest thing he learned at the event was that “a crab could be half girl, half boy”.
Ultimately that was the point of Invasive Species Awareness Day. Not unusual crab specimens, but learning. Selena age 9 said that she had heard about invasive species before but that she didn’t know that “lots of invasive species are sea creatures” adding that “some are aggressive, and bad [for the environment]”. As much fun as we here at the museum have sharing our work and our specimens, it is gratifying to know that what we do makes in impression. Helen age 23, visiting from Ireland said “I loved the Invasive Species Day at the Natural History Museum. I hadn’t been to the museum before, so it was great to go on a day when so much was happening. My favorite part was that there were so many experts on such a variety of species available to talk to; this made the museum seem really open and accessible. I’ll definitely be coming back”. Another guest from Iowa, Alex age 22, agreed. “Invasive species affect the livelihoods of many people and animals worldwide, and public awareness is so important. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was smart to bring these issues to public light.”
By Frances Farabaugh, Intern Invertebrate Zoology Department NMNH