Rare species being traded online pose risk to biosecurity

More than 260 invertebrate species were traded online in Australia over the course of a single year, and could pose a threat to biosecurity and conservation, say researchers.

Among the species traded online are three known invasives, and at least one type of snail considered endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Australia has some of the world’s strictest biosecurity laws, policing the trade of plant and animal life brought to Australia.

Individual states and territories have their own biosecurity laws, but the University of Adelaide researchers behind the study in Austral Entomology suggest cross-border inconsistencies impede effective regulation.

“Australia’s online invertebrate trade presents a delicate balance between encouraging passion for these underappreciated critters, and promoting sustainable trade practices to minimise risks to Australia’s environment,” says Charlotte Lassaline, a University of Adelaide PhD student, who led the study. 

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“Strengthening regulations, encouraging responsible practices, and fostering collaborations between researchers, hobbyists, and conservation organisations are vital steps towards ensuring the preservation of Australia’s unique invertebrate biodiversity.”

The three invasives identified for trade were the white garden snail, Asian tramp snail and African big-headed ant, the latter of which is considered among the worst 100 pest species globally.

“Most traded invertebrates are bought as pets and remain captive all their life but if they are released – intentionally or otherwise – they can cause millions of dollars in damage consuming agricultural crops and competing with native species,” Lassaline says.

The most highly traded species across the 23 online pet shops and one popular classifieds website were the native Australian giant prickly stick insect, silkworm and Flinders Ranges scorpion. Stick insects were also the most popular family of invertebrates exchanged online, followed by ant and tarantula species.

Among the most popular species were dangerous animals like bull ants (31 listings) and Sydney funnel-web spiders (25 listings). Mostly, invertebrates sales were highest in highly populated areas. Lassaline says the trade data suggests buyers are mostly drawn to unusual species, including those which may pose risk to humans.

But she hopes the data will also plug a knowledge gap for poorly studied invertebrates, and to encourage tighter regulation on their trade in Australia.

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“This is the first time that anyone has looked at the number of invertebrates– both native and non-native species – that are being traded online in Australia,” she says.

“Invertebrates are often neglected in conservation efforts and research, with majority of focus on larger-bodied charismatic species. We hope our research can start to change that.”

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