Introduced species get a bad rap from conservationistsOver the last half-century, conservationists worldwide have taken every opportunity to deride introduced species certain in the knowledge that their views would escape serious scrutiny. We’ve all been singing from the same song sheet—the louder and more passionate the denouncement the more praise it has attracted.
Many of us have built entire careers out of identifying which introduced species inconvenience natives. We explore and quantify their effects, and then crow about how important it is to rid ourselves of these ‘invasive’ nuisances.
So, for some, it is with considerable trepidation that they witness this complacent formula starting to unravel in recent years. Study after study, across discipline after discipline, is showing that introduced species are not, and never were, as bad as we thought.
An aging rear guard has devoted itself to the defense of old-school nativism, with all its irregularities, quirks and eccentricities. But many of us can now see that that ship was flawed all along and is now best abandoned.
Let’s learn to live with introduced species, not because it’s a novel or contrarian view, but because it has become the most compelling and sane thing to do.
Reasons to appreciate introduced species
Here are five good reasons why:
- More diversity. In general, introduced species increase local and regional species richness. Most islands, for example, have doubled their lists of plant species through introductions. Longstanding nightmares of ecosystems dominated by single species, while common in agricultural landscapes, are the exception in the wild. Let’s stop talking about species like kudzu as if they were representative.
- More uniqueness. A fixation on species-level biodiversity has fostered the impression that we are losing uniqueness. This assumption is flawed. While species have gone extinct (sometimes due, in part, to introduced species), our ecosystems are every bit as unique as they always were. Native ecosystems are unique, but so too are novel ecosystems, comprising biota that have never lived in the same configurations in history.
- More evolution. Change is continuous and countless recent studies investigating rates of evolution show that it happens a lot faster than we used to think. Both native and introduced species don’t care about our historical baselines and are actively breeding and (de)selecting themselves away from them. Much like technological innovation in times of crisis, evolution seems to be speeding up in response to the environmental changes we have wrought. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is a good thing and that trying to stop it might actually be damaging to the vitality of future ecosystems.
- More nature. We ask people to explore and cherish nature, but so much of the nature they experience around them is the ‘wrong’ kind. Introduced genes, species, and ecosystems are everywhere, permeating everything.
The search for purity is more than an embarrassment now. We risk disenfranchising a whole generation of people by constantly pointing to the belief that real nature is always somewhere else.
- More compassion. Over the last few decades, people have blamed introduced species for just about every environmental malady you could think of. We have been told (and told ourselves) that they are the perpetrators of undesirable processes and states again and again.
The truth is that introduced species are as much the victims of globalisation as native species, having little choice over their location, and no choice over their valuation, but having to suffer the consequences all the same. Scapegoating introduced species is a tired, unethical pastime.
For a more detailed examination of the arguments raised in this article consider reading my recently completed PhD thesis: The Reconciliation of Introduced Species in New Zealand.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.