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Thoughts on Novel Ecosystems

“Protect biodiversity at all costs.” For many of us involved in conservation planning and ecological restoration, this has been our mantra. But with climate change and human population influencing nature in ways we may never fully understand, and at astounding speeds, new ecosystems never before seen are on the rise.

These new, or ‘novel’ ecosystems include arrays of species not historically native, which potentially may cause a change in ecosystem functions and a loss of native flora and fuana. Do we embrace these novel ecosystems and learn how to adapt to them? Do we fight them with all of our collective wisdom and might, returning them to a native state? Is that even possible? What about the potential loss of biological diversity may result from these new ecosystems? And finally, what about our ethical responsibility to ensure the survival of all species on Earth, regardless of their value to humankind?

The way scientists and our larger, global society choose to regard and value novel ecosystems will undoubtedly have major policy implications. It will also impact our disciplines and our work in many ways.

Not surprisingly, the topic of novel ecosystems can really stir the pot among ecologists. Rather than stand outside of the kitchen, we invite you to jump right in. If you are angered or inspired by what you read in this issue, let us know by sharing your reactions on our Rhizome blog, our Facebook or LinkedIn page. Or, go the old school route and send us an email!

We were fortunate enough to discuss the topic of novel ecosystems with two people who have become well known pot stirrers when it comes to the way we view non-native species and novel ecosystems. First, we chat with Mark A. Davis, author of the book Invasion Biology (Oxford University Press 2009) and co-author of a controversial essay “Don’t judge species on their origins” which appeared in the journal Nature this past spring.

Next, we speak with Emma Marris, author of the book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, (Bloomsbury USA 2011) in which she proposes a radical shift in the way we define nature, and thus in the way we approach conservation and restoration.

If you’re wondering whether this topic is truly timely and controversial, you may want to read Living with nature’s original sin, an editorial by Michael Duffy which appeared less than two weeks ago in the Sydney Morning Herald. The piece, which mentions both Mark and Emma, provoked this response from Biohabitats’ invasive species expert, Kevin Heatley (AKA The Marcellus Madman).

We also share resources to help you further explore the subject of novel ecosystems, and news about the latest Biohabitats projects, places and people.

The topic of novel ecosystems is intertwined with the concept of evolution, and we would be remiss if we did not mention the recent passing of world-renowned evolutionary biologist, Lynn Margulis. Her tireless work supporting the view of organisms as active, self-organizing constructors of their own destiny continues to influence our field today, and we will forever be indebted to her.

1 comment

  1. Vincent Vizachero says:

    Thanks for tackling such a thorny, and timely, topic. If there is such a thing as a "native plant purist" I'm it, but it is quite clear to me that there is no escaping that fact that we are better off embracing the concept of novel ecosystems as a key tool in making our planet a better and healthier place.

    Emma Marris always comes off as both smart and sane. Her book covers a lot of difficult ground very well, and I think every environmentalist should read it. She finds a very balanced yet challenging tone, which is not easy to manage.

    I suspect that Mark Davis is pretty smart too, but unfortunately for him it seems that he can't get out of his own way when he makes his arguments. His Nature essay had an undercurrent of worthy material, but his penchant for an attack-dog style makes it hard for anyone who doesn't already agree with his position to even pay attention to him. i was hoping that the time since that piece was published would give him some perspective on just where that essay went wrong, but apparently not. Seriously, the only responses he got to the article were either thankful or threatening? No reasonable disagreements? Really?

    I hope the field finds ways to deal the questions of novel ecosytems and biodiversity in a productive way, and I'm glad you've called attention to the issue.

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