Are there aliens worth saving?

Behold the Japanese white-eye, considered an invasive species in its new home in Hawaii. Yet the bird does something that conservation biologists might considered useful for sustaining ecosystems: it spreads the seeds of native Hawaiian plants. Get rid of the Japanese white-eye, and you get rid of its service.

In Yale Environment 360 this morning, I take a look at a controversial proposal that’s making its way into the peer-reviewed biology literature: some introduced species are actually beneficial. I wrote about the complicated relationship between non-native species and biodiversity a couple years ago in the New York Times. In my new article, I focus on two new papers (here and here) in which scientists are advancing these ideas further. Reconsidering exotic species is just one part of a bigger vision they’re offering: in a human-dominated world, we will often have to give up the idea of restoring ecosystems to a pre-human state; instead, we should focus on ensuring the ecosystems are as resilient as possible, because they’re going to be facing even tougher times in years to come.

As one of the scientists say, the idea is now edgy, but not nuts. Not nuts, maybe, but certain one that continues to draw the ire of many critics, some of whom I interview in the article. Check it out.

[Image: Tristan Shears/Flickr via Creative Commons]

5 thoughts on “Are there aliens worth saving?

  1. It’s worth thinking about what we want from (semi)natural ecosystems. Ecosystems that have been influenced less by humans are certainly valuable controls for some kinds of ecological and evolutionary research. And if an introduced species threatens native species with extinction, I’d rather keep it out. But if they can coexist, then an exotic species that has tastier fruit, is prettier, is less (or more) susceptible to fire, pollinates crops better, eats more pests, etc. should perhaps be evaluated on its individual contributions to whatever ecosystem services we value most.

  2. I’ll take any sort of imported or invasive pollinator that can survive here. The native wasps and most of the solitary bees and bumblebees are gone.

  3. David… ask Australia and New Zealand if that line of thinking worked with rabbits and cane toads. It may also be the same kind of thinking that wiped out your natural pollinators to begin with… some other problem was addressed by an invasive beast that killed the native bees and wasps.

    The problem with ecosystems is the complexity. Make a tiny adjustment in one place and you can start a whole destructive chain reaction. Try to address the destruction and you throw the balance off in another direction.

    The idea of exotics sustaining ecosystems is definitely not nuts. At some point, most parts of an ecosystem were new to that system and had to find balance points. IMHO the question is: Are *WE* wise enough to make these decisions? From what I’ve seen we don’t have too good of a track record.

  4. Solitha — Current thought is that it is a viral inflection combined with mites moving over from the Euorpean honey bees. Damage is done now and it seems I’ll have to make do with little green butterflies.

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