The cane toad, an invasive species in Australia, has caused extensive damage there. Should we care? Photo credit: Sam Fraser-Smith/Creative Commons
Invasive species, those that cross ecological boundaries and establish themselves in new areas, have been a focus of conservationists for decades. And with good reason: Most estimates place the damages caused by invasive species in the United States alone between $100 billion and $200 billion every year.
However, a new editorial in Nature argues that not only have too many resources have been invested in curbing and controlling invasive species but that the entire concept of the threat of non-native species is flawed.SLIDESHOW: The World's Most Lovable Invasive Species
"Human-induced impacts," the authors argue, "such as climate change, nitrogen eutrophication, urbanization and land use change are making the native-versus-alien species dichotomy in conservation increasingly meaningless."
Matthew Chew, an ecologist and historian of invasion biology, commented that:
Scientists who malign introduced plants and animals for thriving under favorable conditions seem to be disregarding basic ecological and evolutionary principles...evaluating whether a species 'belongs' in a particular place is more complicated than just finding out how and when it arrived.
The authors point to species like like tamarisk trees and honeysuckle which, in spite of being recently introduced, have been shown to increase bird biodiversity where they thrive. Instead of invaders, they argue, conservationists and ecologists should talk about these transplanted species as "immigrants" or even "abductees."
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. David Lodge, an ecologist at Notre Dame, said that when non-native species move in, biodiversity may increase but, on an overall global scale, ecological uniqueness declines. Successful invasive species, he suggest, mold ecosystems to their needs and preferences.
Other ecologists suggest that the commentary downplays the impact of invasive species by focusing on lucky successes.
There is one thing, however, that all can agree on: Humans have become the driving force of nature with the power to create new ecosystems and the responsibility to preserve what remains.