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Novel Ecosystems in a New World Order

Keith Bowers
President, Biohabitats

earth in handsI recently spent four mind bogging days on Pender Island off the coast of Victoria in British Columbia to explore the concept of novel ecosystems. Joined by 30+ scientists and practitioners from around the world, we struggled to define the concept of novel ecosystems and what they mean to the conservation and restoration communities. In theory, novel ecosystems are novel assemblages of species, both plants and animals, that have largely resulted from human action, at unprecedented rates and over significant geographic scales. This “new wild” is currently overlooked by the science and conservation communities, yet is becoming more and more common around the globe. Our world is changing fast; modifications in climate, habitat connectivity, nutrient cycling, hydrology and pathogen vectors are resulting in a new ecology – one never before seen in the history of the earth. In essence, what this means is that historical references that have served the conservation and restoration communities are no longer relevant. So where do we go from here? How will we conserve biodiversity, restore ecological processes and maintain ecological functions in the face of this change and uncertainty?

What do Novel Ecosystems Mean for Ecological Restoration?

Novel ecosystems represent rapidly occurring new assemblages of plants and animals that we have never seen before on this planet. With climate change, altered hydrologic systems, over nitrification of soils, and the pervasive spread of invasive species we are altering the landscape in ways unimaginable in years past. We are crossing over biotic and abiotic thresholds at a rapid rate. What does this mean for ecological restoration? Are reference systems even applicable anymore for setting the benchmark for restoration initiatives? What does this mean in our quest to conserve and restore biodiversity? And what will happen to those ecosystem services that currently sustain life on Earth? How will they be effected?

Novel Ecosystems are Here to Stay

Novel ecosystems represent rapidly occurring new assemblages of plants and animals that we have never seen before on this planet. Arguably they are a valuable resource for biodiversity along with the provision of vital ecosystem services for all life on earth, including carbon sequestration, management of water resources and range of cultural services. Novel ecosystems offer cultural value and serve as critically important spaces for connecting economically impoverished and politically alienated communities with nature. So where do we go from here? How can we advance the science of novel ecosystems, convince the conservation community of their significance and affect policy change to recognize their importance?

3 comments

  1. Matt says:

    It sounds like a timely and valuable discussion. Do you know if any papers or resources will be published and made available from the discussion?

  2. keith says:

    Matt,

    Yes, there will be several outputs from the workshop including a book, journal articles, magazine articles and a power point presentation, staggered over the next year.

    In fact, Emma Marris,a very talented journalist and writter attended the event. She has written on this concept (abit maybe somewhat unkowingly)for years and is coming out with a book called Rambuncous Garden that you may want to order – check out her web site for more – http://www.emmamarris.com

  3. Macrobe says:

    There seems to be confusion amongst web sites (e.g. Wikipedia) and the literature (lay and academic) on the definition of 'novel ecosystems.' Many define them by only human agency, others (like here) include systems altered by climate change. Might be helpful for professionals and non-professionals to reach a consensus on definition.

    In my experience, mentioning considering diversity in ecosystems with non-native species is analogous to discussing religion. I will be curious to read how novel ecosystems are assessed in the recent NFWP Climate Adaptation Strategy draft. :)

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