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Global increases in biodiversity resulting from new species

August 15, 2014
Great horned owl in eucalyptus.  Courtesy

Great horned owl in eucalyptus. Courtesy

One of the most popular justifications for eradicating non-native plants is the claim that they will out-compete native plants, ultimately causing their extinction.  Innumerable studies have found no evidence to support that claim, but the belief persists amongst those who demand the eradication of non-native plants.

Islands have been considered particularly vulnerable to extinctions because they contain many endemic species (found only on that island) that have evolved in physical isolation from their ancestors from other places and become unique species.  And there were many animal extinctions–particularly of flightless birds–with the arrival of humans who were both their predators and brought predators with them.

However, despite the conventional wisdom that the introduction of new species of plants to islands would result in extinction of their predecessors, there is no evidence that this is indeed the case with introduced plants.  In 2008, Dov Sax and Steven Gaines published a study of species diversity on islands.  This is what they found:

Honeybee on wild mustard.  Courtesy

Honeybee on wild mustard. Courtesy

Predation by exotic species has caused the extinction of many native animal species on islands, whereas competition from exotic plants has caused few native plant extinctions…By analyzing historical records, we show that the number of naturalized plant species has increased linearly over time on many individual islands. Further, the mean ratio of naturalized to native plant species across islands has changed steadily for nearly two centuries. These patterns suggest that many more species will become naturalized on islands in the future.” (1)

In other words, the introduction of new plants to islands has not resulted in extinctions of the plants that preceded them.  Therefore, the result of plant introductions has been greater plant diversity on islands.

But what about the continents?

Painted lady butterfly on Weigela.  Courtesy

Painted lady butterfly on Weigela. Courtesy

Recently a new study was published that asked the same question on a global scale:  Has the introduction of new plants and animals resulted in the extinction of their predecessors?  The answer is a resounding NO!  (2)

The study was conducted on a huge scale by an international team of scientists:

  • “6.1 million species occurrence records from 100 individual time scales”
  • “35,613 species were represented…including mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, and plants”
  • “The geographical distribution of study location is global, and includes marine, freshwater, and terrestrial biomes, extending from the polar regions to the tropics in both hemispheres.”
  • “The collective time interval represented by these data is from 1874 to the present, although most data series are concentrated in the past 40 years.”

Like most scientists who expect to find evidence of decline, this team of researchers was surprised to find little evidence of loss.  Here are some of their key findings:

  • “Surprisingly, we did not detect a consistent negative trend in species richness or in any of the other metrics of α diversity.”
  • “There is no evidence of consistent loss of biodiversity among terrestrial plants.”
  • “Time series for terrestrial plants exhibit, on average, a positive slope for species richness.”
  • “Collectively, these analyses reveal local variation in temporal α diversity but no evidence for a consistent or even an average negative trend.”  (Alpha diversity is species richness at the local level.)
  • “An analysis of slopes by climate regions reveals that temperate time series have a significantly positive trend…”

In other words, new plants result in more plants, particularly where we live, in the temperate zone.  There is no empirical evidence that new plants have resulted in the loss of the plants that were there before they arrived.

So what’s the beef?

Song sparrow in wild radish.  Courtesy

Song sparrow in wild radish. Courtesy

You might think that this huge new study would put the controversy to rest.  You would be wrong.  For every answer we find, there is a new question from nativists.  The response of native plant advocates to the good news that the plants they prefer will not disappear if new plants are allowed to live in their company is that the plant world is being “homogenized.”  They say that if new plants are permitted to remain, all landscapes will become the same, resulting in the loss of unique landscapes that existed in the past.

They are, of course, mistaken.  Their dire prediction will not come to pass because the biotic and abiotic conditions of every landscape are unique.  The climates are different.  The soils are different.  The atmosphere is different.  The plants and animals that are there when they arrive are different.  If the new plant survives in its new home, it will be capable of adapting to these local conditions and over time it will change, ultimately becoming a unique species.  When the first family of monkeys made the voyage from Africa to South America, they were the same species as those they left behind.  Now they are unique species as a result of genetic drift and genetic divergence.

The process of adaptation and evolution is often more rapid than we expect.  Sometimes such changes have occurred within the lifetimes of scientists who were able to witness these changes.  More often, the changes occur more slowly and are only visible in museum collections or fossil records.

Consider the consequences

Garter snake in eucalyptus leaf litter.  Courtesy

Garter snake in euclypatus leaf litter

It is physically impossible to prevent the arrival of new species.  Even when they are not intentionally introduced they find a way to piggy back on the daily activities of humans.  They arrive on our airplanes and cargo ships.  We aren’t going to stop importing or exporting our products all over the world.  Nor are we going to quit traveling.  We must accept the consequences of the way we live and quit blaming plants and animals for their passive participation in our movements.

Aside from the question of whether or not it is physically possible to stop the arrival of new plants and animals, let’s acknowledge that at least in the case of plants no great harm has come from their introductionSince we now enjoy more plants than were here when they arrived, just what is it that we’re griping about?  We seem to be griping about change.  Change will occur whether we like it or not.  We can’t prevent change, so we must quit fighting against something that we are powerless to prevent.  That is the definition of wisdom.

Finally, we must consider the consequences of trying to eradicate non-native plants that are firmly entrenched in our landscapes.  Huge amounts of herbicide are being used in the futile attempt to eradicate them.  Fires that pollute the air and endanger our homes are set for the same purpose.  Trees that are performing valuable ecological functions are being destroyed.  The animals that use these plants and trees for food and cover are being deprived of their homes and their food.  We are doing more harm than good.


  1. Dov Sax and Steven Gaines, “Species invasions and extinctions: The future of native biodiversity on islands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 12, 2008
  2. Maria Dornelas, et. al., “Assemblage times series reveal biodiversity change but not systematic loss,” Science, April 18, 2014
3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2014 7:25 am

    Very well said.

  2. Clayton permalink
    January 13, 2017 11:08 am

    Estimating local biodiversity change: a critique of papers claiming no net loss of local diversity
    Ecology, 97(8), 2016, pp. 1949–1960

    Andrew Gonzalez, Bradley J. Cardinale, Ginger R. H. Allington, Jarrett Byrnes, K. Arthur Endsley, Daniel G. Brown, David U. Hooper, Forest Isbell, Mary I. O’Connor, and Michel Lorea

    Abstract. Global species extinction rates are orders of magnitude above the background
    rate documented in the fossil record. However, recent data syntheses have found mixed
    evidence for patterns of net species loss at local spatial scales. For example, two recent
    data meta-analyses have found that species richness is decreasing in some locations and
    is increasing in others. When these trends are combined, these papers argued there has
    been no net change in species richness, and suggested this pattern is globally representative of biodiversity change at local scales. Here we reanalyze results of these data syntheses and outline why this conclusion is unfounded. First, we show the datasets collated for these syntheses are spatially biased and not representative of the spatial distribution of species richness or the distribution of many primary drivers of biodiversity change. This casts doubt that their results are representative of global patterns. Second, we argue that detecting the trend in local species richness is very difficult with short time series and can lead to biased estimates of change. Reanalyses of the data detected a signal of study duration on biodiversity change, indicating net biodiversity loss is most apparent in studies of longer duration. Third, estimates of species richness change can be biased if species gains during post-disturbance recovery are included without also including species losses that occurred during the disturbance. Net species gains or losses should be assessed with respect to common baselines or reference communities. Ultimately, we need a globally coordinated effort to monitor biodiversity so that we can estimate and attribute human impacts as causes of biodiversity change. A combination of technologies will be needed to produce regularly updated global datasets of local biodiversity change to guide future policy. At this time the conclusion that there is no net change in local species richness is not the consensus state of knowledge

    • January 13, 2017 4:35 pm

      The article on which you are commenting is reporting on a study that finds no decrease in the diversity of plants resulting from the introduction of new species of plants. The study you cite is addressing another question: it relates the loss of plant diversity to anthropogenic change. Anthropogenic change includes a multitude of factors, of which introduced plants are but an insignificant factor. In fact, climate change is overwhelmingly the most significant anthropogenic change. Likewise increases in development related to population increases and the pollution associated with human habitation are also more significant factors. So, yes, building, plowing, polluting, and logging can cause a loss of species diversity. We do not dispute that fact.

      The study you cite criticizes the global meta-analysis that finds no net change in biodiversity on the grounds that it is not globally representative of all ecosystems. Tropical and boreal forests are under-represented, for example. Temperate zones were over-represented in the global meta-analysis because these are the regions most intensely studied and therefore where data were available. The study you cite does not and cannot correct that over-representation because no data exist for under-represented ecosystems. The study you cite speculates that a different conclusion would be reached if such data were available. That is just speculation and therefore has no more validity than a study that is using available data. The corrections for these deficiencies in available data are physically impossible and are therefore a straw man argument.

      The study you cite also criticizes the global meta-analysis on the grounds that the comparisons between baseline states and current state of biodiversity are not long enough. Most time frames were at least 40 years long. Again, the global meta-analysis is using available data. If data for longer time frames were available, the meta-analysis would have used them. Again, the study you cite speculates that if longer time frames were available, greater loss of biodiversity would have been observed. They speculate that at least 100 years would be needed to compare baseline state to end state. Given that the climate is changing rapidly, such a long time frame would reflect the results of that radical change in the climate, not the effects of introducing new plants.

      The study you cite argues that the biodiversity changes analyzed by Dornalas are not valid because they do not always start with undisturbed sites as baseline. Using undisturbed sites as baseline would include biodiversity loss caused by the disturbances (deforestation, development, pollution, etc.). Again, as above, those losses cannot be attributed to the presence of non-native plants. Correcting for such baseline differences is also physically impossible and therefore another straw man argument.

      The study you cite is typical of the gloomy predictions of invasion biology. The authors speculate that if we knew more, they would be able to report greater loss of biodiversity. They speculate that if we wait long enough, the loss of biodiversity they predict would finally be observed.

      We live in the temperate zone and our interest in local eradication of harmless plants is based on what we know about the temperate zone and the reality of what we can observe now. The study we cite in this article is therefore well suited to our interests and our audience. We do not question that anthropogenic change is generally not beneficial to the natural world. However, we consider eradicating harmless plants with toxic pesticides just that much more anthropogenic damage to the natural world.

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