Invasives on Nature Table

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Source: Funky biodiversity

This extraordinary creature is tardigrade, affectionately called ‘water bear’. In reality, it is a microscopic creature and is known to be the only species able to survive in space! I took part in Open Space Research Centre’s Nature Table event last week with a number of colleagues and a fantastic guest speaker, Caspar Henderson, the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and a fellow citizen of Oxford. Water bear features in Caspar’s excellent book subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’, bestiary being medieval encyclopedia of natural history – wonderfully illustrated with facts, observations and stories of wild animals. Water bear in Caspar’s book is perhaps the most celebrated example of resilience of life: even if all life on earth vanishes in a catastrophe of meteoric proportions, water bear will probably survive – a ‘polyextremophile‘ as Caspar described it.

Such is the resilience also of many invasive species: they may not survive in space, but they certainly survive on earth due to their sheer adaptability to no matter what is thrown at them. One ought to admire their resilience, which also makes them extremely difficult to control. Alien invasive species cost the British Economy £1.7 billion every year, estimates the Environment Agency – that’s bigger that the GDP of some of the Caribbean nations – an impressive statistic. The Environment Agency has recently announced a new smartphone app called PlantTracker. This is a great tool for people to get involved in spotting invasive species and reporting them. This ‘citizen science’ can lead to new understanding of the geography of many invasive species. But is it enough? Can we then simply go on with business-as-usual? Or do we also need to find a different way to look at this ‘alien invasion’?

It’s a tricky question, but it might be useful for us to recognize that the alien invasives have gone out of control because we have created habitat for them. Attempts to eradicate them is one way, but another is to reverse our gaze and accept that the invasives will continue to flourish alongside us. For a species of our size, we have changed the rules of the game by having a disproportionately large impact on the planet and in the process created space for other species like us. This brave new world – the Anthropocene – is beginning to be recognised. There is now even an academic journal by the same name, which usually suggests that this idea has caught on – after 13 years since the Nobel-laureate atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen first wrote about it. In favour of ‘the Anthropocene approach’ to looking at the world, Gary Hamilton writes ‘Welcome weeds: How alien invasion could save the Earth‘ and argues that there is more good to weeds than meets the eye, while Emma Marris in her book ‘Rambunctious Garden’ argues that we should “let a little more wild” into our lives. With these new ways of looking at our natural world, something is surely changing. As Caspar described it last week, “the beginning is nigh”.

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