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Slugs, Allelopathy, and the Allure of Invasive Species: My Experience as an Invasive Species Outreach Intern

by | May 10, 2023

Louise Tymrak worked as an invasive species outreach and education intern for Homer Soil & Water Conservation District during the spring of 2023.

After a move back to my hometown of Homer, finding an internship with Homer Soil and Water Conservation District (HSWCD) was a very welcome surprise, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

I am a full-time student finishing my senior year at the University of Alaska, Southeast, studying biology and environmental science. During my internship with HSWCD, I worked on invasive species outreach and education projects to support the KP-CISMA’s broader public engagement efforts.

A woman in a canoe and wearing brightly-colored pants and a red life jacket uses a fishing pole to collect water samples from a lake.
Louise performs conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) sampling in Juneau’s Auke Lake. CTD sampling is important for understanding the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the water column, which helps scientists understand biological processes in a waterbody. Photo: Courtesy of Louise Tymrak

I was first interested in the internship because I wanted to learn how to better-communicate science to the public. In the two months I was with the HSWCD invasive species team, I not only saw a vast improvement in my science communication skills, but I also discovered more personal interests, learned about some new resources, and was presented with opportunities to collaborate with others across the state.

This is my experience working with HSWCD and the KP-CISMA, who work to protect our peninsula, and a few ways you can help, too.

Communicating Science

Science communication has always been important to me. I share my interests and fascinations of science with almost anyone who will listen. But I have often found myself frustrated at the inaccessibility of scientific research. Although important, I rarely see research written by reliable authors in an accessible and exciting way for non-scientific audiences.

I have discussed this with my peers, coworkers, and friends but never went out of my way to learn how one would go about communicating science more effectively. My expert experience in communication relies entirely on the enthusiasm I project when discussing cellular slime molds, the blood circulation in marine bird’s legs, or juvenile salmon habitat. In other words, as important as communicating science has been to me, I did not realize I was quite bad at it. (Editor’s note: Louise is NOT bad at it.)

For HSWCD, I had the great opportunity to research invasive species and write up their biographies for the KP-CISMA website. My first submission of a species biography was edited and sent back to me, and it was filled with (figurative) red marks, slashes, additions, substitutions, and comments. My boss apologized, but I loved it. I was taught by one of the best, and I’m still learning how to take science and break it down in a way that is fun, accessible, and understandable.

Discovering New Interests

I also found new, often unexpected, interests during my internship.

Invasive species are non-native species that cause damage to the environment they are introduced to (damage can also include economic or detrimental effects to human health). They typically spread rapidly and can degrade habitat, cause monocultures, and reduce land value.

Their impressive ability to outcompete native species and change community dynamics within a habitat is alarming. They are dangerous for ecosystems and biodiversity, and this is everything the KP-CISMA works to mend. But somehow, in a small part of my brain, I am impressed by their persistence. I find myself in the duality of both loving and scorning invasive species.

Invasive species spread to new areas most often by human transport, often accidentally. They are “uprooted” from their home and dropped in a new area, where they spread, reproduce, and do their very best (and their very best is way too good, which is why they are a problem).

I discovered I am especially interested in the European black slug. A slug is the last animal I thought would ever catch my attention. However, this (large) little guy is surprisingly majestic for an animal whose survival depends on producing slime.

In Alaska, the first recorded infestation of European black slugs was in Cordova, where they were likely introduced through contaminated nursery plants. The slugs rapidly expanded their range and are now found throughout much of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. Because they are hermaphroditic and can self-fertilize, their populations can grow explosively. They also hybridize with the Spanish slug, creating a more resilient and cold-tolerant version of the individual slug species.

A broader group of organisms I grew to love: plants on the offensive, or allelopathic plants (those that produce exotoxins). I am not a botanist. I have spent most of my time in biology focused on animals, protists, and fungi. However, working with HSWCD and the KP-CISMA taught me a lot about both our local native and invasive plants, and one of my favorite things I learned about plants is that some produce exotoxins, chemicals that inhibit the growth and reproduction of other plants.

Finding New Resources

Aside from the very cool things I learned about invasive species, I also gained access to databases and training opportunities I normally wouldn’t have looked into: maps of documented invasive slug reportswebpages where the public can document sightings of invasive species, and an app to help people with species identification.

These tools are helpful not only for the people working tirelessly to protect the Kenai Peninsula from invasive species, but they are also important to help the public alert professionals to a new invasive species infestation.

Taking in New Opportunities

Lastly, I was lucky to attend the 2023 Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Science Symposium. Close to 100 individuals gathered for two days of presentations, networking, and collaborating for a common cause. At the symposium, I gained insight into new perspectives and met incredible people working on projects I’d never heard of. I learned about how research and community engagement contribute to conservation, and I rediscovered my love of habitat restoration.

Partnering with others throughout the community, the peninsula, and the state has been an incredible experience. It helped me to better understand the importance of partnerships and appreciate the commitment to protecting our peninsula and the ecosystems we rely on. I cannot overstate the importance of organizations such as HSWCD and the KP-CISMA, and the work they do. I also cannot overstate the benefits I received from joining this team and the incredible impact it had on me in just two months’ time.

You Can Help!

Most new invasive species infestations are reported by the outdoorsy Alaskans who spot something new while hiking, four wheeling, fishing, or just being outside. If you spot a plant (or animal) you don’t recognize, snap a photo and upload it to the Alaska Invasives ID app or report it to Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s hotline, 1-877-INVASIV.

If you haven’t visited our species page in a while, check it out! We’ve added a few of Louise’s species biographies, including Elodea, tansy ragwort, and bull thistle to the website, and we’ve updated the European green crab page. Stay tuned – we’ll continue to add more over the next couple of months!


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