Ash trees in New England and across the country are at risk of extinction because of a foreign beetle known as the emerald ash borer.
The beetle has killed millions of ash trees since it’s discovery in America 15 years ago when it was brought accidentally from Asia to Michigan.
The beetle’s larvae kill trees by tunneling into the inner bark and feeding on the vascular tissue, which disrupts the trees' flow of nutrients, such as water and sugars. That causes the tree to die within a few years.
Scientists have identified the emerald ash borer in a few New England states, but it hasn’t made its way to Rhode Island or southern Massachusetts yet.
Tim Whitfeld, a researcher at Brown University, said ash trees are not that common in Rhode Island forests, but that doesn’t mean there would be no effect if the beetle showed up here.
Whitfeld says if ash trees disappear, there's a chance non-native plant species could replace them and thrive.
"(The non-native species) come here, their enemy is not here, so they can just take over," Whitfeld said. "They can keep growing and there’s nothing to keep their population in check, and as a result they can become the most dominant species and out-compete everything else.”
Whitfeld said the dominance of non-native plants could have a negative effect on other species that rely on native plants, such as the ash tree.
Whitfeld added ash trees are commonly used in urban areas as street trees, so their extinction could leave sidewalks barren.
Scientists discovered the emerald ash borer in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 2012 and southern New Hampshire in 2013.
The emerald ash borer is typically brought into states when people transport fire wood.