An "alien" beetle has stripped bare nearly every large red bay laurel, the once-ubiquitous "evergreen of the coast" in South Carolina.

In fewer than 20 years.

And the common sweet gum, the second most prevalent hardwood across the state, could be lost just as quickly if a destructive Asian beetle makes its way here.

Aliens — as some researchers call invasive species — are a leading cause of the extinction of native plants and animals around the world. They are becoming more of a threat to plants and wildlife in South Carolina.

A recent study of 953 extinct species by University College London in England found one-third of the species were lost partly to invasive species, and 126 of those entirely because of invasive species.

lionfish

"The invasion of an alien species is often enough to cause native species to go extinct," said the study's lead researcher Tim Blackburn, a bioscientist.

In South Carolina, more than 150 "aliens" have been discovered in freshwater alone.

Other top-billing invasive culprits such as feral hogs root up forest plant communities, while tropical lionfish carpet the sea bottom and rocky shoals offshore, eating sought-after grouper and snapper fish.

Red fire ants have been in the state for decades after accidentally being imported into Alabama in the 1930s, spreading north.

Charleston landscaper Jeff Jackson of the S.C. Native Plant Society has seen a Chinese wisteria plant kill a live oak tree that was 2 feet wide at the trunk in Sullivan's Island maritime forest. He's seen river bottoms completely covered with invasive privet shrub, strangling out native bottom food sources.

feral-pigs-retone.jpg

Feral hogs, like these in the Congaree Swamp National Monument, are an invasive species that out-competes other wildlife for food. File/Wade Spees/Staff

John Fuss, of North Charleston, hunts for feral hogs and has seen them deplete forest foods, such as acorns and nuts, faster than deer and turkey can get to them, he said.

Clemson University invasive species researchers cite estimates that 42 percent of the nation's endangered and threatened species have declined as a result of encroaching exotic invasives. The direct cost of invasive species to the American economy is estimated at $138 billion per year.

South Carolina is doing better than a lot of places holding on to native species. A host of natural features, such as forests, riverlands and coastal wetlands, make the state rich with plants and wildlife like few other places in the world.

But the increase in global and international transport, a warming climate, habitat pressure from agricultural conversion and development are making life harder for native species, particularly the ones that require specific habitats and might not be able to adapt.

As they weaken, they are more prone to be overrun by invasives, ecologists say.

blighted red bay

Red bay leaves show the damage from an invasive species beetle. David Jenkins/S.C. Forestry Commission

About 30 native plant and animal species found in the state are considered endangered. Another 18 are labeled threatened and hundreds more considered to be species of concern. They include one-of-kind plants such as the Venus fly trap and regal creatures such as the right whale.

That comes as the next generations of foreign plants, germs and animals have already begun to wreak havoc here. Phragmites — tall-growing reeds that choke out native food plants — can wreck a coastal wetlands ecosystem. The plant is doing it already in stretches of Winyah Bay near Georgetown and other waterways in South Carolina.

"It absolutely could get worse," said David Jenkins, the S.C. Forestry Commission's forest health coordinator.

But all is not lost. Any number of efforts are underway to try to control the invasives — from pesticides to predators.

Herbicide poisons are used on phragmites. Foresters will isolate an infested area by thinning trees and cutting breaks between the sick and healthy red bays.

Divers have been harvesting lionfish, which turn out to be tasty, and a seafood market is developing for them.

And the state has virtually an open hunting season on hogs.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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