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What are Invasive Alien Species?

Invasive alien species (IAS) are species whose introduction and/or spread outside their natural past or present distribution threatens biological diversity.

IAS occur in all taxonomic groups, including animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms, and can affect all types of ecosystems. While a small percentage of organisms transported to new environments become invasive, the negative impacts can be extensive and over time, these additions become substantial. A species introduction is usually vectored by human transportation and trade. If a species’ new habitat is similar enough to its native range, it may survive and reproduce. However, it must first subsist at low densities, when it may be difficult to find mates to reproduce. For a species to become invasive, it must successfully out-compete native organisms, spread through its new environment, increase in population density and harm ecosystems in its introduced range. To summarize, for an alien species to become invasive, it must arrive, survive and thrive.

Common characteristics of IAS include rapid reproduction and growth, high dispersal ability, phenotypic plasticity (ability to adapt physiologically to new conditions), and ability to survive on various food types and in a wide range of environmental conditions. A good predictor of invasiveness is whether a species has successfully or unsuccessfully invaded elsewhere.

Ecosystems that have been invaded by alien species may not have the natural predators and competitors present in its native environment that would normally control their populations. Native ecosystems that have undergone human-induced disturbance are often more prone to alien invasions because there is less competition from native species. For example, imported red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta Buren) are more successful in establishing themselves in disturbed areas such as roadsides and agricultural fields and rarely colonize intact closed forests.

Islands are especially vulnerable to IAS because they are naturally isolated from strong competitors and predators. Islands often have ecological niches that have not been filled because of the distance from colonizing populations, increasing the probability of successful invasions. For more detailed information, visit the Island Biodiversity page on Invasive Alien Species.

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  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme