“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.

Permalink 8 Comments