Empowering Research on Marine Bioinvasions to Support Conservation of Native Species and Ecosystems

April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.

Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.


Dissected views of a sea squirt

Ascidiella aspersa. Plate XII. Alder, Joshua and Albany Hancock. The British Tunicata. v. 1 (1905). Contributed in BHL from the MBLWHOI Library.

The solitary sea squirt Ascidiella aspersa is native to the Northeastern Atlantic, from the Mediterranean Sea to Norway. Living in shallow sheltered sites and harbors, this species has a fast growth rate and is able to produce a large number of larvae.

These attributes have helped make it a successful colonizer of non-native environments, such as the Southwestern Atlantic, where it has become an invasive species introduced likely via ships.

A woman with dark hair in a blue sweatshirt examining fouling communities in a white bucket.

Dr. Evangelina Schwindt, Head of the Grupo de Ecología en Ambientes Costeros from CONICET in Argentina, finishing an experiment with fouling communities. Photo by: Alejandro Bortolus.

Dr. Evangelina Schwindt, Head of the Grupo de Ecología en Ambientes Costeros from CONICET in Argentina, studies Ascidiella aspersa as part of her research as a marine invasive ecologist. Her work involves researching the interactions between invasive and native species, the patterns and processes occurring in biological invasions from the historical and present-day perspectives, the impact caused by invasive species, and the management strategies that can be applied.

Much of her research focuses on fouling communities living in artificial habitats such as ports, harbors, and ships. Species like Ascidiella aspersa are having a major impact on these communities, outcompeting and displacing native species and disrupting the ecological balance of the habitats they invade. As such, the management of invasive species is of vital importance to the successful conservation of native biodiversity and ecosystems.

“Invasive species are one of the five major drivers of biodiversity change, affecting also ecosystem services, food, health and economy,” asserts Schwindt. “The protection of native species and ecosystems in general improves overall quality of life and is an indicator of wellbeing and health.”

A fouling community at Puerto Madryn port in Argentina

A fouling community at Puerto Madryn port in Argentina. Photo by: Evangelina Schwindt.

Research to support the management of invasive species requires an understanding of the species’ taxonomy, genetics, global distribution and the earliest record of introduction in different regions worldwide. Studies on marine invasive species can be particularly challenging, as marine biodiversity is less well-understood compared to species living in terrestrial or freshwater environments.

Not surprisingly, research on invasive species can be time consuming, and tracking down their spatial and temporal patterns and history is labor intensive. Unfortunately, in the face of today’s biodiversity crisis, time is not on our side. To understand the impact of invasives and integrate their management as part of a successful conservation strategy for an ecosystem or threatened species, researchers need tools to help improve the efficiency of their work.

Fortunately, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is just such a tool, providing researchers with free and open access to critical data to support conservation work.

“BHL provides free access to literature for researchers around the world that don’t have good libraries in their institutions,” lauds Schwindt. “Research is much faster and better when the bibliography needed to work is freely available.”

Schwindt first discovered BHL over ten years ago while conducting online searches for historic literature. Since then, it has become an invaluable asset for her research.

“My work requires historical literature and records from scientific expeditions in different languages,” explains Schwindt. “BHL is the best place to find the bibliography I need to reconstruct the past and present of marine species.”

Screenshot of a cover of a book with the title "Especies Exóticas Marino-Costeras de Argentina". The cover is black with yellow and blue letters and there is a crab on the cover.

Especies Exóticas Marino-Costeras de Argentina (2018), the first book on exotic marine coastal species of Argentina. Schwindt is the lead author for the book.

For example, BHL was a particularly useful resource for Schwindt and her colleagues during the production of their book Especies Exóticas Marino-Costeras de Argentina (2018), the first book on exotic marine coastal species of Argentina. The book, which has been made freely available in BHL, describes 45 marine-coastal exotic species, with exotic species being defined as “those owing their presence in a given region to various human actions, deliberate or not, that allowed them to overcome biogeographical barriers impossible to cross on their own” (Schwindt et al. 2018).

“The vast archives of BHL were particularly significant for us during the elaboration of this book because it provided us with the historical first records and accounts associated with several exotic species detailed some centuries ago by early explorers, naturalists and scientists traveling along the Southwestern Atlantic,” explains Schwindt.

A woman in a blue shirt and white shorts walking through a tunnel with ankle high water.

Schwindt surveying reefs of the polychaete Ficopomatus enigmaticus colonizing channels in urban areas. Photo by: Alejandro Bortolus.

BHL is also a valuable asset for Schwindt’s work as the coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) Thematic Assessment of Invasive Alien Species and Their Control, which is intended to “assess the threat that invasive alien species pose to biodiversity, ecosystem services and livelihoods and the global status of and trends in impacts of invasive alien species” (IPBES 2020).

“I found BHL extremely helpful for my work on the IPBES Thematic Assessment,” shares Schwindt. “All literature cited in the assessment should be open access, and the fact that BHL’s archives are extremely complete and open access made it a reliable tool to share and to use.”

A yellow and green crab held in someone's hand.

The exotic green crab Carcinus maenas is one of the invasive species studied by Schwindt. Photo by: Alejandro Bortolus.

BHL also provided important information for Schwindt’s most recent paper on marine bioinvasions—”Past and Future of the Marine Bioinvasions Along the Southwestern Atlantic” (Schwindt et al. 2020). The Library provided the first record of several relevant introduced species.

For example, Agardh’s Species genera et ordines algarum (1876) documents the introduced macroalgae Lomentaria clavellosa, probably native to the NE Atlantic Ocean and recorded in the SW Atlantic around 1876. Similarly, Giambiagi’s Cuatro nuevos isópodos de la Argentina (1922) records the introduced isopod Synidotea laevidorsalis, probably native to Japan and China and found in the SW Atlantic in 1902. Fauvel’s Annélides polychètes des Iles Falkland recueillies par M. Rupert Vallentin Esqre (1902-1910) (1916) likewise documents the cryptogenic polychaete Procerastea halleziana, recorded from the region in 1902.

In total, the paper documents 129 introduced and 72 cryptogenic marine species for the Southwestern Atlantic, with 33 new invasions occurring since 2002—translating to one new invasion every 178 days. Ships were identified as the most likely vector for these introductions. By documenting the historic and persistent introductions in the region, this paper underscores the need to establish long-term assessment programs to generate ongoing baseline data and support efficient environmental management.

This paper also illustrates how legacy literature, like that provided through BHL, is a valuable source of historic baseline data, which researchers can use to assess the patterns and evolution of invasions over time.

As the authors write:

“We cannot make progress in our understanding of the impact of invaders if the scale of invasion diversity remains poorly assessed, and if the abundance and distribution of already established invaders remain uncertain. The most direct consequences of delays in recognizing invasions are delays in early detection of and rapid response to new invasions, and the hampering of the design of strong, effective management strategies to prevent future introductions” (Schwindt et al. 2020, 15).

Clearly, successful conservation strategies require not just an understanding of a specific threatened species, but also of the forces—such as invasive species—that affect their well-being. Researchers like Dr. Schwindt are working to strengthen our understanding of these forces and improve our ability to address them. Open access to the vital literature provided through the Biodiversity Heritage Library helps make this work possible, ensuring that researchers around the globe have the data and tools they need to help save biodiversity—and that is a very good reason to be optimistic as we celebrate Earth Optimism.


IPBES. Thematic Assessment of Invasive Alien Species and Their Control. 2020. Work Programme. Accessed on 29 January 2020. https://ipbes.net/invasive-alien-species-assessment.

Schwindt et al. 2018 Especies Exóticas Marino-Costeras de Argentina. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Vazquez Mazzini Editores.

Schwindt et al. 2020. “Past and Future of the Marine Bioinvasions Along the Southwestern Atlantic.” Aquatic Invasions 15.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.