Rethinking Invasive Species: Should we give them a break?

Photo by andres musta |

Anyone who has taken a course or read a book on ecology would be familiar with invasive species and the potential damage they can initiate within ecosystems. Plants, animals, and other organisms not native to an environment assume the role of an invasive species, a title automatically giving the biological intruder a bad reputation. Reported cases range from widespread attacks of purple loosestrife eliminating all other plant species, to smaller-scale incidents like Asian carp populating Cootes Paradise in Hamilton, Ontario. All instances demonstrate the detrimental impacts of invasive species on an ecosystem. 

With that being said, I had a series of mixed reactions when I read that scientists at Macalester College in Minnesota are viewing invasive species with a completely different perspective. According to Nature, there may not be a need to worry about the impacts of invasive species in the environments they inhabit. When an invasive species establishes itself in an area and begins to replace native species, this usually signals an alarm for ecologists and biologists to find a suitable solution to this ecological problem. This response is unnecessary, says Mark Davis and his colleagues. 

From their point of view, native species do not have a right to be designated the ‘most important’ to conserve in an ecosystem, nor is it always certain that native species are the best for its environment of origin. One well-known example of this is the mountain pine beetle, which wipes out Canadian and American forests every year, and is spreading rapidly across the continent. Although the species is native to North America, it continues to cause destruction to ecosystems, rather than allowing them to flourish. 

At first, I was taken aback by this argument, left wondering what kind of environmental scientist would choose to not worry about ‘bad’ invasive species taking over an ecosystem once occupied by ‘good’ native species. We should be examining the nature of invasive species to determine possible ways of eliminating them, right?

Well, maybe not. I realized that us – as humans – have been constantly looking for more ways to ‘fix’ the environment ever since science and technology have been sufficient enough for us to do so.  Time and time again, however, we are struck by the realization that we will never know all of the complexities and processes of Earth’s ecosystems.  After all, the environment managed to regulate itself before human beings were around to tamper with nature.  And perhaps this still remains the best way to treat invasive species – to simply leave them alone.

In the years to come, we will continue to assist species in their worldwide travels, whether zebra mussels become stuck to the bottom of a ship traveling internationally, or fish are released in foreign environments.  Climate change will continue to alter the planet as the tree line moves north and weather patterns vary.  Since we can be responsible for these occurrences, maybe we should just let nature come up with its own solution – but to what extent?