Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
An alien invasion is decimating reef life from New York to South America. In the last decade, lionfish –the striped-and-spined creatures you may have admired in the aquarium at your favorite Chinese restaurant– have taken over the Atlantic and their appetites are decimating indigenous fish populations.
Lionfish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, but appeared in the Atlantic in the 1990s. It’s believed that Hurricane Andrew in 1992 shattered a porch aquarium in Biscayne Bay, Florida, and released several red lionfish into the wild. The fish were observed in the bay several days later. Genetic workups support the aquarium theory, showing very little genetic variation among the lionfish. Genetic halotypes suggest the current Atlantic population originated from only eight female fish. Sound improbable? Not when you realize that a female lionfish spawns every four days, producing 25,000 eggs per batch, and the larvae take less than a month to hatch. To make matters worse, the venomous lionfish has no natural predators in the Atlantic, so their population grows unchecked. The animation below shows their exponential growth:
And they’ll eat just about any fish they can fit in their mouths. Their stomachs can expand 30 times in volume to accommodate their meals. Field researchers have seen a single lionfish eat 20 small wrasses in just half an hour. All this means devastation for reef populations. A recent study found that in just two years, reefs in the Bahamas lost approximately 65 percent of their small prey fish, while larger fish decreased by over 40 percent. The vibrant reefs we all dream of snorkeling may be marine ghost towns in the very near future.
To save the reefs, we may have to give the lionfish a taste of it’s own…no pun intended. Turns out that lionfish is delicious; a flaky fish similar to tilapia, easily cooked once the venomous spines are removed. There is a growing campaign to establish lionfish as a delicacy and make us humans its predators. Culinary combat may be viable against other endangered species as well; check out this slideshow for examples (and recipes). Can we eat our way back to ecological balance?
This story is a fascinating illustration of both the destructive capacity of non-native species and the delicate equilibrium of ecosystems.
What if this same scenario occurred with non-terrestrial aliens? Imagine the introduction of a fungus that corrodes metal and glass, or an invertebrate that irreversibly contaminates our water systems. How quickly might our world order be thrown out of balance? Or an all-out horror blockbuster; creatures that eat homo sapiens the way lionfish eat wrasses. Not malevolent beings bent on eradicating the human race, just an invasive species enjoying the buffet and furthering their evolutionary imperative to propagate.
Now turn the tables. What if we were the invasive species? One could argue that this already happened many times throughout history. Human visitation to previously uninhabited areas led to the extinction of species like the dodo, moa, and great auk. We’ve even wrought invasive havoc on one another; think of all those occasions when explorers decimated indigenous peoples.
Expand that concept and take your thinking out of orbit. What if we found a planet that seemed ideal for colonization–much like the lionfish, we found this new environment had a comfortable climate, no predators to speak of, and a seemingly endless supply of resources for our use. It might not occur to us that we’re throwing a perfectly tuned ecosystem out of whack until suddenly all the resources are gone, our population is out of control, and there’s no way to undo the damage. Wait a minute…that might have already happened here on Earth.