Embracing Aliens in the Galápagos?

At invasivore.org, we advocate making the best of a bad situation- when life gives you a lemon invasion, make invasive lemonade.  But a recent Science article describes an environmental management strategy in the Galápagos that may be taking this approach to the extreme.


The Galápagos Islands represent one of the world’s true biodiversity gems, making a recent Science article by Gaia Vince all the more troubling.  Vince begins with a description of classic Galapagos icons- a creeping tortoise and chattering finches- but quickly notes that these and other native species are being choked out by nonnative species and agriculture.  Mark Gardener, the head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station is introduced with a troubling quote, “Galápagos will never [again] be pristine.  It’s time to embrace the aliens.”  The article goes on to describe how efforts to eradicate the incredible number of introduced species in the Galápagos (nearly 900 introduced plants alone!) have largely failed, leading a group of “maverick” ecologists to advocate accepting “benign” invaders and celebrating the “novel ecosystems” they produce.

While this certainly provides some interesting food for thought, at invasivore.org we can’t help but be a little nervous about a conservation strategy that actually celebrates invasions.  Although there appear to be examples of benign invaders- the article notes banana as one such species in the Galápagos – lag times between the introduction of a species, its detection, and the manifestation of impacts are important considerations in the management of invasive species, not to mention that a conservation strategy that celebrates “novel ecosystems” could lead some to take a permissive or even proactive stance toward biological invasions.  This is particularly unfortunate, because as we’ve discussed before, prevention of invasions is generally more cost-effective and likely to succeed than trying to eradicate or control established invasions.

That is why we’ve emphasized awareness and prevention as our primary goals here at invasivore.org, and we only encourage the harvest of invasive species to make the best of a bad situation.  But we’d like to know what you think about this maverick conservation strategy.  Are “novel ecosystems” something to celebrate?  When can we let our guard down against “benign” invaders?  And how do you feel about this experiment in ecosystem management occurring in the Galápagos?  Let us know in the comments section- we look forward to hearing your thoughts!


6 thoughts on “Embracing Aliens in the Galápagos?

  • March 31, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I think its great that you guys are out there writing about this. But what I encourage you to do is move out beyond just blogging and go out and actually start hunting and cooking some invasive species in your area, because that is the only place where the rubber really meets the road. The internet is full of people writing about other people who are writing about other people doing things in the real world. We have plenty of that. Since you guys all seem to be studying biology, you look like you’re in a really good situation to actually get out there and start pulling the trigger. Writing one blog entry about an actual hunting expedition will be better than 100 blog entries about things going on in the news.

    Seriously, you grabbed this particular domain name so you’ve taken on a special responsibility. Don’t let us all down now. Good luck and good hunting.

  • March 31, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement, Jackson. We’re big fans of your work over at The Locavore Hunter.

    At invasivore.org, our goal is as much about spreading awareness of invasive species as it is actually getting out an eating them. Education is a far more effective tool against future invasions than consumption.

    That said, we’ve chosen invasivory as our “hook” to keep things interesting, so we’ve been working hard to line up hunting and gathering expeditions to chronicle. As winter finally breaks in northern Indiana, we plan to provide more first-hand accounts of invasivores practicing their craft, as you say, in the real world. So we encourage you to stick around to see just where we end up- it should be a fun, educational, and tasty ride!

  • Pingback: Weekly Invasivore Round-up. April 2,2011 | Invasivore.org

  • April 3, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Interesting post Matthew, but I disagree with you in three points.

    First, the Science article is not proposing a conservation strategy that “celebrates” invasions, but it provides a new way to look at and manage for these hybrid ecosystems in the Galápagos, because the old way has proved to be unsuccessful. After many (!) years of trying to eradicate plant exotic species, the restoration team realized that the medicine is worst than the illness (the disturbance created by eradication practices actually promotes the spread of not only the exotic in question but of others), so they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to accept some* invasives as part of the ecosystem. From my point, this is a controversial but brave and so much needed attitude, in particular for those exotics that provide similar-to-the-natives ecological roles.

    *Secondly, the article argues for embracing *some plant* exotic species, not all plant and not all invasive species. Efforts to control plant exotic species will continue, and others to eradicate exotics predators, such as goats, cats, dogs and pigs have proven to be successful and continue to be underway.

    And finally, the article is in no way suggesting to do nothing to prevent the introduction of new exotic species to the islands and the “maverick ecologists” are part of several ongoing efforts and institutions dedicated to this: http://www.darwinfoundation.org/english/pages/interna.php?txtCodiInfo=67

  • April 3, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Margarita. I was aiming to be a little provocative in my post for the sake of generating some conversation, and I think I may have come across as more critical of the conservation efforts ongoing in the Galápagos than I intended to be. I generally agree with you and Mark Gardener that some invasive species are here to stay, so it’s time to start coming up with new conservation approaches to deal with them. In my neck of the woods, zebra mussels will certainly never be eliminated from the Great Lakes, and perhaps the same is true of banana trees in the Galápagos.

    While I don’t worry that the team at the Charles Darwin Research Station or any ecosystem manager worth their salt would advocate the intentional introduction of non-natives, I think at this early stage, a management strategy that embraces introduced species is open for misinterpretation. For example, the Science article states:

    “[Gardener] is joining forces with a group of maverick ecologists who for the past 5 years have promoted the idea that the addition of nonnative species to natives in a region leads to “novel” or “hybrid” ecosystems that have ecological value and may be worthy of conservation.”

    I think this spin on invaded ecosystem management could be abused to promote invasions or justify feeble detection and eradication efforts following new invasions in the name of “ecological value” of the invaders and their impacts. Therefore, ecologists, ecosystem managers, and the public need to all be included in an open discussion to sort these potential misunderstandings out before “embracing invasives” can be applied at large scales. In that spirit, I very much thank you again for your input and would welcome you and others who read the site to keep the conversation going on the site and elsewhere.

  • April 5, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Update: A recent New York Times op-ed does a nice job of exemplifying my concerns. Check it out here.


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