Aliens invade the museum

They can destroy entire ecosystems and there are already 4,000 of them in B.C.—and the number is growing.

They can destroy entire ecosystems and there are already 4,000 of them in B.C.—and the number is growing.

Aliens Among Us is a travelling Royal B.C. Museum exhibition about alien species.

It’s just been set up at the Okanagan Heritage Museum on Ellis Street, ready for an official opening on Saturday.

Not all 4,000 are profiled, but a select number have been brought to Kelowna so you can see what critters such as a starling, a raccoon, a praying mantis and a smallmouth bass look like up close and personal.

Not all alien species have proven to be harmful to native plants, animals, insects and fish, but others can be costly and destructive.

Aliens are the second most devastating threat to biodiversity next to habitat loss, notes Patti Kilback, associate director of the museum.

They compete unfairly with native species because they’ve often left their natural predators behind, and they can push native species out of their homes.

The 2004 federal government report, An Invasive Alien Species Strategy for Canada, estimated the cost to Canada to combat just 16 invasive alien species at $34.5 billion and that’s increasing as the climate warms.

“It’s something people don’t think about, but it’s a growing problem in B.C.,” commented Kilback.

Often, they’re good adapters and they arrive here in many ways: in ships or rail containers, on fruit or vegetables or on plants.

The exhibit includes a running list of the names of alien species, and you can stand in front of it for a long time before it begins over again. “It’s frightening to see,” commented Kilback.

Some of those profiled in the exhibit are already in the Okanagan, and others are on their way.

For instance, the European Starling was introduced by a Shakespeare fan who brought a few dozen over and released them in New York’s Central Park in the late 1800s. They didn’t reach B.C. until 1945, and today there are an estimated 200 million in North America.

Starlings outcompete native songbirds and huge flocks can destroy acres of berry crops in hours.

Purple loosestrife was brought here in the early 1900s, partly because of its medicinal properties and partly as a landscape plant, but today it has invaded local wetlands, choked out native plants and virtually stopped the flow of water in places.

Knapweeds are another invader that has cost millions in damage to natural ecosystems and rangelands. It’s believed it came over in some agricultural seeds, and rapidly became established and spread.

A chemical in its root prevents other plants in the vicinity from sprouting, helping to establish a monoculture where it gains a foothold.

Zebra mussels have taken over mussel populations in the Great Lakes and they’re headed this way.

Some aliens are surprising, like the common earthworm, the giant house spider and the praying mantis, the latter of which was apparently brought in from Ontario by Okanagan farmers looking for a control for grasshoppers in the 1930s.

The good news is that everyone can have a hand in control, by learning more about aliens; using native plants in their landscapes instead of imports; by not releasing pets, such as red-eared slider turtles, into the wild; and by making their property unattractive to non-native squirrels, rats and birds.

An innovative feature of this exhibit is the virtual museum that accompanies it—an interactive website at:

The exhibit will be here in Kelowna until Feb. 5, 2012.

At Saturday’s opening, you can also hear Tim Willis, director of exhibits and visitor experience at the RBCM in Victoria, talk about museums and what they’re doing to make a difference in their communities.

He’ll be talking at 1 p.m.

Opening concurrently with this exhibit is an eco-art project produced by Jennifer French and Science Opportunities for Kids, and artist/educator Pippa Dean-Veerman, with assistance from a grant from the City of Kelowna.

The fibre-art project involved eight classes from a variety of Kelowna schools who visited six regional parks for inspiration last spring and this fall and created woven, dyed fabric and felt pieces of art as a result.