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Save A Place at the Table: Is There a Place for Non-Natives in Ecological Restoration?

By Andrea Gregor

Non-native species are known to be a strong driver of native species decline and habitat degradation (D’Antonio & Meyerson, 2002). All invasive species are non-native, yet not all non-native species are invasive (Clewell & Aronson, 2013). Non-native species have the ability to infect natives with disease, outcompete them and alter ecosystem functions (D’Antonio & Meyerson, 2002). Non-native species, however, have also been shown to enhance the process of ecological restoration by acting as an alternate food source, or increasing nutrients in soil and becoming an important part of ecosystems. I focus on non-native plant species, however non-native animal species follow similar trends, and equal research should be performed. If ecological restoration is the restoring of native landscapes, then is there any room for non-native species to be part of this process? How can we assure that non-natives used in ecological restoration will not become invasive?

The Potential Impact of Non-Native Species

An area of land that is to go through ecological restoration often has had disturbance caused by human action or environmental events (Keenleyside, Dudley, Cairns, Hall, & Stolton, 2012). According to Vilà and Weiner (2004), disturbance increases the chance of invasion by non-native species as species that have the potential to become invasive tend to be good colonisers after disturbances. As well as this, many create seed banks which allow them to endure for a long period, and make eradication difficult. With an increased risk of invasion, we get an increased risk of interspecific competition between native and non-native species. Studies conducted are unable to say that all non-native species always outcompete natives; however there is still a strong competitive effect on native species, which can cause a decline in the population of native species (Vilà & Weiner, 2004). Species compete for light, nutrients and space (Wilson & Tilman, 1993). Therefore including certain species of non-natives in restoration runs the risk that the introduction, be it accidental or not, could be detrimental to the persistence of that ecosystem through potential outcompeting and overcrowding.

If inadequate research is done, non-native species have the potential to become invasive in certain environments. Invasive species have been recognised as the second largest threat to global biodiversity after habitat fragmentation (Allendorf & Lundquist, 2003). Throughout the world, invasive species cost governments billions of dollars. Management of plants and animals listed under the Endangered Species Act cost $32-$42 million annually, in which 90% of those funds are allocated to mitigate the effects of invasive species (Wilcove & Chen 1998; D’Antonio & Meyerson 2002). In New Zealand invasive species cost $840 million each year to control, and produce a $1 billion loss in productivity (Giera & Bell, 2009). With such a large economic impact that invasive species have on New Zealand and the world, should we risk using species that have the potential to be invasive in ecological restoration?

Are All Non-Natives That Evil?


Figure 1: American hummingbird feeding on honeysuckle. John Bergez 2012

With adequate research, there is room to include non-natives in ecological restoration. Some non-native species, particularly plant species have been shown to increase the population of native species. Non-native species being used as an alternate food source for native species can lead to an increase in native population numbers due to the increased resources. For example, in the US, introduced honeysuckles are improving native bird populations (Figure 1). It is also found that seed dispersal of native plants is the highest where non-native honeysuckles are the most abundant due to dispersal by the now more populated native birds (Davis, et al., 2011). This positive effect of a non-native plant has enhanced the population of native bird species, as well as other native plants. Subsequently, removing non-native species can have negative effects to an ecosystem removal of these pine plantations will demolish the favourable , and successful eradication so far has been limited to small islands (Zavaleta, Hobbs, & Mooney, 2001). With declining native habitat, half of New Zealand’s threatened indigenous plants are found in historically rare ecosystems with localised distributions (Pawson, Ecroyd, Seaton, Shaw, & Brockerhoff, 2010). Encouraging natives to use non-native habitats as substitutes could help the continuation of species. The New Zealand large bird orchid (Chiloglottis valida) has been found within non-native Pinus nigra plantations. The microclimate under these pine trees which allow orchids to survive outside of their original habitat. Because of this reason, a small orchid reserve in this plantation has been created, while the rest of the plantation has been logged (Pawson, Ecroyd, Seaton, Shaw, & Brockerhoff, 2010). This example is one of many which show the necessity of keeping specific non-native species in order to retain native species.

Implications on Soil Nutrients


Figure 2: The soil alternating Falcataria moluccana. HELCO 2014 

Exotic plants can alter ecosystem processes through differences in nutrient cycles. They can cause an increase, or decrease to the soil nutrients created by native species (Ehrenfeld, 2003). Negative effects of the changes in the soil microbial community can lead to an increase in the invasiveness of an ecosystem from other species (Green, O’Dowd, Abbot, Jeffery, Retallick, & Mac Nally, 2011). This has the potential to create an invasion meltdown which would undo all restoration efforts thus far and render a project useless. Changes in soil structure, such as an increase in nitrogen can encourage growth from other invasive species which outcompete natives, and shroud out the light with denser canopies, reducing the growth of native species (Allison, Nielsen, & Hughes, 2006). In Hawai’i, nitrogen fixing invasive tree Falcataria moluccana (figure 2) alters the soil structure which limits the growth of native species. Along with this, F. moluccana facilitates the invasion of another non-native species, Psidium cattleianum (also known as the strawberry guava) which outcompete natives for resources (Allison, Nielsen & Hughes, 2006). If a species such as this was used in ecological restoration without research, it has the potential to become invasive and harm the ecosystem, rather than benefit it. Changes in soil structure can also have positive effects; non-native species are able to be used positively as substitutes for slower growing natives when restoring areas with poor productivity soils which have had disturbances such as overgrazing or mining (Wong, 2003). Fast growing nitrogen fixing trees from Asia were found to grow well in degraded pastures in Puerto Rico and accelerated regeneration of native forests (D’Antonio & Meyerson, 2002). Without exotic species in circumstances like this, ecological restoration would not be able to get under way, especially if natives  we are wanting to maintain struggle to establish in degraded soils. Non-natives in this case are essential to effective recovery of native sites. The differences in the nutrient cycles of non-native species and native species we want to restore will determine the impact non-natives will have on the soil composition and therefore the native species. These impacts can differ from site to site and can cause ecological restoration to fail or succeed. Research is our greatest tool to ensure we only use species that succeed, and remove species that will cause our project to fail.


Novel Ecosystems

With continued human movement, non-natives are becoming more and more abundant, creating many novel ecosystems (Marris, 2011). In ecological restoration, you must pick your battles; it is not possible to remove all introduced species. If a non-native has no potential of becoming invasive, and is doing no harm to an ecosystem, then leaving that species and focusing money on other areas would seem like the way forward. In some cases, I feel we should learn to embrace novel ecosystems, especially in circumstances where we are unable to return ecosystems back to their original state. Non-natives may have changed the habitat of an area to make it unsuitable for future natives, whether the non-native is present or not through changes in soil or species composition, and abundance (Norton, 2009) . According to Norton (2009), it has passed the biotic threshold, and there is no way to return the ecosystem back to its original state. If this is to have happened, and a non-native has taken over the niche of a native without affecting other species, it may be in our best interests just to embrace the change leave it there as part of a functioning ecosystem.


Non-native species have a place in ecological restoration, however we must be wary of which species we choose to include in these projects. The fact that invasive non-native species are one of the largest threats to ecological restoration means that using non-natives in these practises can lead us to walk on a fine edge between enhancing native species, and causing an invasive meltdown. Introducing non-native species seems like we are encouraging the opposite of what we are trying to achieve, however it has been shown in many cases to work. We have little room for error, therefore we must use short lived, well researched species and we must monitor them closely to ensure ecological restoration is achieved successfully. We must also acknowledge that there is always a chance of failure; a species may interact with its surrounding different than we had planned. This is a risk that is shared in all conservation and restoration projects which can be minimised, but never removed. In this essay.  We must also look at the possibility of leaving non-natives that have been determined low risk to ecosystems; we can never restore every area back to its original state, but if we pick our fights correctly, we are able to nurse many native species back with the help of non-natives.



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