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How do invasive species take over?

a close up of the skin of a Burmese phython. Ranger Yvette Cano holds the skin of a Burmese phython. A group of iguanas rests on a dock.
Jane Lindholm
Vermont Public

Why are there Burmese pythons and chameleons in the Florida Everglades? We might not know how those animals arrived but they are causing damage to the natural ecosystem. An invasive species outcompetes native plants and animals in an ecosystem. So how does this happen? But Why travels to the Everglades to learn more about how and why species end up in places they shouldn’t. Plus, why are we sometimes told to kill invasive insects like the spotted lanternfly?

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript

A collage of three images showing large clusters of spotted lanternflies.
Credit / Holly Shugart & Brian Walsh
A collage of three images showing large clusters of spotted lanternflies.

  • There are native species and non-native species. Native species have made it naturally to an area where they are able to grow, live, reproduce, and have young. 
  • We say a species is non-native when it is transported to a new area by people. Sometimes humans accidentally move species into new areas, like if an insect or frog travels with a pallet of vegetables or plants. Or if a type of mussel or barnacle hitches a ride on a cargo ship.
  • Other times people intentionally import non-native species. One example is bringing a seed or a plant from where it has been growing to plant it in a new area. Many plant species spread easily and quickly establish themselves in new habitats.
  • Some invasive animals, like the Burmese python, were originally brought to new environments as part of the exotic pet trade. When people discovered their cute pet was quickly growing bigger than they could handle, some of them set their snakes “free” in the wild, where they were able to find other released snakes, reproduce and quickly expand their population.
  • We say a species is invasive when it has started out-competing other species in one ecosystem and is throwing the natural systems out of balance.
  • Burmese pythons have become established in the Everglades and they are eating a lot of animals, leading to fewer rabbits and other small mammals. A full-sized python can eat a white-tailed deer. Deer don’t know how to avoid pythons. 
  • Spotted lanternflies are considered a threat to plants, especially grapes. They are established in many parts of the eastern United States. In many places kids are told to stomp them if they see them! 
  • You can help protect your ecosystem by learning which plants, animals and insects are native to your area. 
  • Make sure you don’t buy any invasive plant species for your garden. Consider planting native species of trees and flowers. 
  • Never release a pet into the wild. Check in with a wildlife agency or animal rescue organization if you are struggling to care for a pet. 
  • Do your research before you acquire a pet to make sure you can care for it when it’s fully grown.
  • If you see a new invasive species, report it to your local officials.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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