Just Finished Reading: Where do Camels Belong? – The Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson (FP: 2014)
The word you need to focus on in this rather unusual title is: Belong. Not live, not evolved, not extinct but belong – because that’s an important question and an even bigger red herring. Because seen from a long enough perspective camels ‘belong’ in North America. Makes total sense, yes? Or maybe not. That’s one of the points this intriguing and challenging book makes. If you say that a species belongs somewhere (and by extension that others do not belong) what, exactly do you mean by that and, more importantly, what are you going to do about it?
So-called invasive species are a problem all over the world, whether its rabbits in Australia, exotic plants in North American waterways or foreign insects in the English countryside. Of course the irony of trying to control such ‘invasions’ is that most of the invaders have been brought in by humans – either deliberately or by accident. From animals brought in as food stocks, to plants brought in because they looked pretty to birds brought in and released because someone wanted to hear every birdsong mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays (I kid you not!) humans have, over the centuries seriously messed with the worlds ecology. As international trade and travel increase it should come as no surprise that creatures who thrive in human environments spread across the globe. At the same time those we regard as pests and inconvenient (or especially tasty) plummet in numbers as soon as humans arrive on the scene.
Much of this, as you might imagine, is based on simple prejudice. Animals and plants we like thrive whilst those we do not like – very much like a plant in the wrong place is labelled a weed – tend not to. The labels of ‘indigenous’ and ‘alien’ help to direct the emotions (and little else) in the fight to ‘maintain ecosystems’ as if such a thing was even possible. Looking back a thousand years or a thousand generations much of the planets fauna and flora would either be unrecognisable or recognisably in the ‘wrong place’. Nature, and the natural environment, does not and never has stood still. Ecosystems are dynamic and response to invasions – natural or otherwise – and adapt over time. Several long term studies have shown that initially highly effective invasions often begin to stumble after their initial incursions become, after many generations, just another element in an increasingly complex ecological system. Taking the long view, rather than snapshots, puts alien invasions increasingly into perspective and takes the heat out of any ill thought out response to discovering aliens living amongst us.
Drawing on examples from across the globe this highly informative, often amusing and challenging book looks at ecologies, species distribution, and the threat of invasion in (at least to me) very new ways. I suppose that I intellectually knew that ecosystems change over time and that new species sometimes extend beyond their normal range for a number of reasons but I never really put it all together in my head before now. I will certainly be reading future newspaper articles and scare stories with a great deal more scepticism in future after finishing this slim volume. It has, like many of my favourite books, made me look at my unfounded assumptions about the subject and forced me to think again. I do love it when that happens. If you have an interest in such things or ever wondered where particular animals came from – never mind actually belong – this is the book for you. But be warned you may never think about either indigenous or invasive species the same way again.