5 Species You Might Have Mistakenly Thought Were California Natives | KCET
5 Species You Might Have Mistakenly Thought Were California Natives
Some of the animal species we introduced, on purpose or by accident, have made themselves right at home in our cities and our wildlands. Some have seemed to fit in without causing obvious harm to other species. Others have caused serious damage to the landscape. Most of them fall somewhere in between.
Did you know that all of these animals were introduced to California? Some of the entries on this list may surprise you.
Some people love them, with their nearly harmless demeanor, quiet habits, and ability to rid a vegetable garden of snails overnight. Others can't get past the snaggle-toothed grin and ratlike tail. Whatever your viewpoint, you may well have assumed that the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana, with its primeval appearance, has been in California since time immemorial.
The truth is that there were no opossums in California before the 1890s, when a small population of the marsupial was moved to Los Angeles County, where their descendants spread across the South Coast. A second population was brought into San Jose from Tennessee in 1910 by migrants nostalgic for the wild food of home, and a third population of South Carolina opossums was released into the southern Sierra Nevada after a fur farming venture failed.
Between those three main introductions and a host of smaller ones, opossums have spread throughout California and the rest of the Pacific Coast. They have a supremely generalist diet, eating a range of foods from live lizards and snakes to rotting tree fruit, and that habit has allowed them to thrive in the widely varied habitats available to them in California.
That diet has probably also kept the opossum from becoming a walking environmental disaster, in that it doesn't seek out specific kinds of food such as the eggs of native birds, and it doesn't seem to have badly displaced other native animals through competition.
Eastern fox squirrels
The bad news is that depending on the kind of habitat they move into, eastern fox squirrels can displace a closely related California native, the western gray squirrel
That's not true of every kind of habitat: as of 2009, the two species seemed to be coexisting in parts of Griffith Park. But in other places, the victory of eastern fox squirrels over their western cousins is inexorable. In 2005, biologists first noticed eastern fox squirrels on the Cal Poly Pomona campus, at the time a stronghold of western gray squirrels. By 2009 there were no gray squirrels left on campus.
Honeybees are Old World insects, and the most commonly domesticated species, Apis mellifera or the European honeybee, probably originated in Africa, spreading across Europe and Asia and imported into North America in the 17th Century.
Shelton's first California hive prospered, and was followed by others. Now, European honeybees are crucial to the Golden State's agricultural sector, and we regard their future with fear. Ironically, the presence of introduced honeybees may be suppressing populations of native bees, which you don't hear much about in the "save the honeybees" brochures.
And unlike opossums and honeybees, those who brought parrots to the state and released them didn't keep public records. That's probably because the raucous birds now caucusing in the queen palm down the block descend from either escaped pets or other fugitives from the captive parrot trade.
One species of parrot, the monk parakeet or Quaker parrot, was deemed such a potential threat to California agriculture that its importation and possession has been banned in the state, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife describes an eradication campaign against the species as a success. Other species haven't turned out to be quite so disruptive, focusing on non-native food sources like urban fruit trees and taking time out to star in the occasional documentary film.
That may come as a surprise to visitors to Santa Catalina Island, where the local bison herd seems to blend wonderfully into the landscape.
But aside from the possibility that those eastern Modoc bison may have visited once in a while, and aside from a couple vague second-hand reports of "buffaloes" related by early California explorers like Juan Crespí, there is essentially no evidence of modern bison in California.
It kind of makes sense: bison don't climb steep mountains if they can avoid it, and California is well-defended along its eastern border with steeply tilted fault-block mountain ranges. Why cross the Warners when there's perfectly good grass in the sagebrush steppe below?
Of course that's modern bison, with the easy to remember Latin binomial "Bison bison." There were other species of bison in California back in the Pleistocene, even bigger and crankier and more dangerous than the kind we have now. Bison antiquus, the most common large herbivore found in the La Brea Tar Pits, lived here up until about 10,000 years ago. Bison latifrons, which had a truly fearsome set of horns that could span seven feet from tip to tip, died out in California somewhere between 30,000 and 21,000 years ago.
But their inheritors the modern bison? Not so much with the California territory. Something to remember as you take in the iconic California countryside on Catalina.
For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.
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