“Novel Ecosystems,” aka “Trash Ecosystems”

July 28, 2009 at 9:40 am (By Amba) (, , )

This story is somehow related to the turn the conversation on the previous post has taken.  It’s about the futility and silliness of control and purism.  It’s about humans not as the destroyers of nature but its wild card, its agents of creative destruction.

This forest on Big Island features mango trees from India (Mangifera indica); Cecropia obtusifolia, a tree with huge star-shaped leaves from Mexico, Central America and Colombia; rose apples (Syzygium jambos) from southeast Asia; tasty strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum) from the threatened Atlantic coast of Brazil; and a smattering of Queensland maples (Flindersia brayleyana) from Australia. It also has candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana), a species that humans have moved around so much that its origins have become obscure. There is at least some native Hawaiian representation in the form of hala, or screwpine (Pandanus tectorius), which is pictured on the crest of Punahou School, where US President Barack Obama studied. There are no Hawaiian birds here though. Mascaro sees plenty of feral pigs, descendants of those brought by settlers from other parts of Polynesia or from farther afield. The soil is black and rich. Mascaro likes it here.

Most ecologists and conservationists would describe this forest in scientific jargon as ‘degraded’, ‘heavily invaded’ or perhaps ‘anthropogenic’. Less formally, they might term it a ‘trash ecosystem’. After all, what is it but a bunch of weeds, dominated by aggressive invaders, and almost all introduced by humans? It might as well be a city dump.

A few ecologists, however, are taking a second look at such places, trying to see them without the common assumption that pristine ecosystems are ‘good’ and anything else is ‘bad’. The non-judgemental term is ‘novel ecosystem’. A novel ecosystem is one that has been heavily influenced by humans but is not under human management. A working tree plantation doesn’t qualify; one abandoned decades ago would. A forest dominated by non-native species counts, like Mascaro’s mango forest, even if humans never cut it down, burned it or even visited it.

You could even call it cosmopolitan.  Or the nature version of “street.”  As wilderness goes, it’s urban.  The species that make it in these places are scruffy, versatile, adventurous, and resilient.  Sometimes even beautiful.  Brawlers and opportunists, like us.



  1. Callimachus said,

    There is certainly a strain of puritans among that secular religion whose attitude would have regarded the first mammals as a dreadful and despicable infringement on the ecological rights of the Stegosaur.

  2. Richard Lawrence Cohen said,

    Creative destruction — novel ecosystems — isn’t that what God does? There’s no such thing as a pure, unchanging ecosystem, just as there’s no such thing as a pure, unchanging culture. And there shouldn’t be, or we’d all be living in museum dioramas. Through human influence or not, species are continually interacting, expanding and moving their territories, mutating, hybridizing, traveling by wind and water, shaped by fire, drought, glacier, volcano, and the presence of other species. This is evolution, as Callimachus points out.

  3. Donna B. said,

    Isn’t there a Robert Frost poem about this sort of thing?

  4. Bryce said,

    You dont know crap about the irish elk

  5. Bryce said,

    you cant name a fact about the irish elk to save your life

  6. Bryce said,

    i hunt elk you name it my grandfather was the one who killed the last irish elk

  7. country mouse said,

    How long did it take the insects and other members of an ecosystem to evolve together? I don’t buy into this novel ecosystem idea. I’d like to hear more about the effect on the whole community living in a wilderness area that has way less than its usual share of local native plants.

  8. Pollinator said,

    The so called novel ecosystems are like refuge camps. Yes, they function somehow; but how do they compare with well established, highly functional, prosperous neighborhoods?
    As country mouse says, it takes tens of thousands or perhaps millions of years to develop the multiple and complex interactions of mature ecosystems and to recover the original biodiversity after profound disturbances have taken place.
    Nature will rebound, yes, but we won’t be here to see it. From a selfish, practical point of view we would be wise to preserve what we have.
    As for “the futility and silliness of control and purism”, that is not what conservationists are trying to do. They are trying to restore the original biodiversity and functionality of ecosystems, not the “pristine” state, which we all know would be impossible to recreate if it ever truly existed.

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