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Climate change is forcing species from their habitats. Does that make them invasive?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As climate change continues to restructure our environment, some species are slowly migrating away from their original habitats. Maybe it's just tens of miles, but they're not always welcome in their new neighborhoods. So does that make them invasive species, or are they just trying to survive wherever they can? Marina Bolotnikova wrote about this question for Vox, and she joins us now. Welcome.

MARINA BOLOTNIKOVA: Thank you. Glad to be here.

DETROW: So let's talk about the phrasing first. Why and when did ecologists first come up with the idea of invasive species, and what exactly does it mean?

BOLOTNIKOVA: Invasion biology, as a discipline, is only about 40 years old. That was a surprise to me in doing this reporting, that it's as young as it is. And, yeah, I think, you know, in terms of what invasive species are, an invasive species is thought of as any species that is non-native - meaning that it was introduced by humans to a new place, usually one very far away from its original habitat - that can cause harm.

DETROW: Yeah, I did want to ask about that because you write a lot - and you talked to a lot of people who make the case that this framing can be harmful and that many of these animals should be framed differently. And, you know, it's not like a European starling's feelings are going to be hurt by being called invasive. So why does that matter?

BOLOTNIKOVA: The starlings are a really good example. The starling is a bird that's native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, and they were introduced in the U.S. in the late 19th century, according to a kind of apocryphal but often repeated story about an American ornithologist who wanted to introduce every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to the U.S., so he released them in New York City.

And starlings became incredibly successful here. I think today a lot of laypeople know about starlings and see them as this menace. One scientist I talked to in this story, Natalie Hofmeister - she's an expert on starlings - was telling me that, in fact, the literature is not clear on whether starlings harm native bird populations.

Meanwhile, starlings are considered an invasive species, and they do a great deal of economic damage to industrial agriculture. So they eat grains from, like, cattle feedlots, for example. And the branch of the USDA that deals with wildlife that is inconvenient for U.S. agriculture kills millions of these birds.

DETROW: We're talking about this in the context of climate change. I mean, we have seen, in so many places, documentation of as climates warm, animals moving to places that they didn't live before simply because the climate they're used to has shifted to somewhere else. Has there been an increase in the number of species being labeled as invasive as this happens more and more?

BOLOTNIKOVA: When the climate changes, ecosystems change. There's no way around that. And so, yeah, like you mentioned, right now countless species are moving with the climate. These are called range-shifting or climate-tracking species. There are different ways to refer to them. The scientific community sees range shifts as a good thing. Obviously, we'd prefer climate change to not be happening. But given that it is, it's a good thing that species are able to migrate and adapt. That's how nature is going to survive the climate crisis.

However, the dominant lens through which the general public sees non-native species is the lens of invasion. I think there's this kind of latent sense that a non-native species coming into a new place is wrong, that it doesn't belong there, and that, you know, ecosystems ought to be frozen in time. And meanwhile, some - and some scientists and environmental philosophers, some of whom I talked to in the story, have been critical of the invasive species paradigm itself for the last few decades and - but, you know, especially more recently, as it's become clear that we're in a radically changing world and that today's, you know, invaders could be the foundation of tomorrow's ecosystems.

DETROW: So given that, among the experts you talked to who have had this criticism, is there a consensus thought on the best way to reframe this field, especially given the fact that as the planet warms, it's going to come up more and more?

BOLOTNIKOVA: There are many, you know, criticisms of invasion biology from a number of different scientific and ethical perspectives. I would say it boils down to saying that, you know, the idea that nature is supposed to stay frozen in time and that we should restore old ecosystems that are long gone, whatever the cost, is that that's a value judgment that we shouldn't always accept, especially, you know, not on a rapidly changing planet.

DETROW: That's freelance writer Marina Bolotnikova who wrote about this topic on Vox recently. Thanks so much for joining us.

BOLOTNIKOVA: Thank you. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.