Ecological performance and possible origin of a ubiquitous but under-studied gastropod
Faculty of Computing, Health and Science
School of Natural Sciences / Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research
Invasions by non-indigenous species (NIS) have been suggested to alter local, regional and global biota on unprecedented scales. To manage NIS, it is pivotal to identify whether a species is introduced or native, but even today the geographical origin of thousands of species worldwide remain uncertain. Most of these ‘cryptogenic species’ are inconspicuous and rare, but in a few instances, they can also be abundant and conspicuous species, with large impacts on community structure. The identification of cryptogenic species, and summarizing information on their most likely origin, is an important task in invasion biology, and can highlight the need for research and management. Here, we document that the gastropod Batillaria australis in the Swan River estuary (Perth,Western Australia) is a conspicuous species of uncertain origin. A literature review combined with new survey data revealed that all evidence point to a recent human-mediated transfer; for example, it is absent from the fossil record, was first collected in 1954, has a low parasite diversity, has increased its population size dramatically in recent times, is separated by >3000 km from conspecifics, has no long-distance dispersal mechanisms, and existing ocean currents run against a natural range extension. Surprisingly, despite political and scientific focus on NIS hardly any ecological data have been published on this species from Western Australia. We show that B. australis is highly abundant in both seagrass beds (424 29 ind m 2) and on unvegetated sand flats (92 22 ind m 2) being orders of magnitudes more abundant than any native gastropod in the Swan River. Experiments showed that high resistance to predation and environmental stress potentially explains its success. From our survey data, we calculated that >3.6 billion invasive snails today occupy the Swan River. This large snail populations support other organisms; for example, almost 1 billion macroalgae are found attached to living B. australis and >100 million hermit crabs occupy its empty shells. Given Battilaria’s high abundance, wide distribution, large size, persistent shells that support other organisms and bioturbating behavior, it seems inescapable that this potential invader has impacted the ecosystem functioning of the Swan River. We argue that the search for abundant species of uncertain origin should continue, and that these species generally should be treated with the same interest as high status invaders to mitigate impacts in already invaded systems and to avoid secondary spread into neighboring ecosystems.