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Rare-Plant Sales Across Borders: Playing with Ecological Fire

Threatened and endangered plants are on the move, due in large part to a burgeoning online market that falls on both sides of the loosely laid law, a new study shows.
/ Source: OurAmazingPlanet

Threatened and endangered plants are on the move, due in large part to a burgeoning online market that falls on both sides of the loosely laid law, a new study shows.

While some rare species may thrive in homes thousands of miles from their native habitat, researchers warn of the dangers for other transplants — not to mention for their new neighbors.

"Some people think that they're helping endangered plants by moving things around, when in fact they may be causing more harm than good," said Patrick Shirey, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame. "They could be introducing a new invasive species or a plant pathogen."

Internet sales

Shirey and his colleague Gary Lamberti recently scoured the Internet for ads for the 753 plants listed as threatened and endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They found nearly 10 percent were being advertised or sold online, in most cases illegally.

For example, the star cactus, native to only a few parts of Texas and Mexico, is available for online purchase from at least six states and several countries.

Of course, the sale of plants across borders is nothing new. It just has become a whole lot faster and easier, said the researchers, who published a commentary with their findings in tomorrow's (Jan. 27) issue of the journal Nature.

"It used to be that people would order the plants through catalogs — a very slow process," Shirey told OurAmazingPlanet. "Now you can just type 'endangered species' in a search engine, hit 'shopping,' and the plants will pop up. And with increased shipping efficiency, you can get something across the world in only two days."

Whether the shopper is out to make money, assist the migration of a species struggling in the face of climate change, or simply fill his or her garden, the potential ecological and economic consequences are likely the same: damage to crops, pastures and ecosystems.

All told, the introduction of non-native plant species costs the United States more than $30 billion a year.

"Even though something is rare and endangered doesn't mean it can't be invasive in another habitat," Shirey said.

Plant 'pollution'

The market for rare plants also can further endanger a species by motivating more harvesting, exposing it to new pathogens, even altering its genetic makeup. Demand might stimulate cultivation that "selects for genes that do well in a garden environment, but not necessarily genes that have helped that plant survive in the wild," Shirey said.

And if cultivated plants get mixed with a wild population, "genetic pollution" can result.

While fairly strong restrictions surround the movement of threatened animal species, the same is not true for plants. Further, the few rules and regulations that do exist, such as the $100 permit required to ship plants between states, are not well enforced.

In their commentary, the researchers urge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies to start paying more attention to plants. A species such as the rare Florida torreya tree might seem less interesting than, say, a Florida panther, but its introduction or loss can have just as much impact on an ecosystem.

Acknowledging the limited resources available, Shirey suggested computer scientists could even set up an automated Internet search for the names of endangered plants and for "add to cart," to help crack down on illegal interstate sales.

Consumers can do their part, too. "Don't buy an endangered plant simply because it is endangered," Shirey advises. "Buy one that will do well in your area because it is native."