Climate Change Changing The Meaning of “Invasive Species”

Quiver trees are declining in Namibia, but thriving in South Africa, indicating a poleward shift of the species. Image: John Dambik

As climate change warms our planet and ecosystems respond, the definition for native and invasive species is becoming increasingly blurred. As Yale E360 wrote,

“Across the warming globe, a mass exodus of tens of thousands of species is transforming the distribution of biodiversity — and challenging fundamental tenets in conservation policy and science. 

In recent years, scientists have documented countless species shifting their ranges toward the poles, higher into the mountains, and deeper into the seas in response to the changing climate.”

Generally, conservation has thought of species as native or invasive and policies have been oriented to repel new species. This approach and its underlying classification of wild species as either “native” (and thus worthy of protections) or “alien” (and thus likely not) has been the subject of growing controversy in recent years.

The Mass Migration: Nearly half of all of the Earth’s species are on the move and this is already altering what people can eat; sparking new disease risks; upending key industries; and changing how entire cultures use the land and sea.

Changing How We Manage Nature: We’re still figuring out all the ways in which climate change will affect our planet. However, conservation practices, laws, and best practices are going to have to be updated for our changing world. As Yale explains,

  • A growing number of scientists say that conservation policies based on the native-alien dichotomy could actually threaten biodiversity. Today’s climate-driven range shifts are “one of the only solutions for species to adapt to climate change,” says ecologist Nathalie Pettorelli, who studies the impact of global environmental changes on biodiversity at the Institute of Zoology in London.
  • Ensuring that wild species can make life-saving movements and establish self-sustaining populations in new habitats, while also protecting already-resident species, will require new ways of evaluating species — not just on their origins and historical value to society but on their ecological functions and how they can contribute to the novel ecosystems of the future.

Why This Matters: We’re going to need science and data to drive our decisions around conservation management in the age of climate change. For instance, before “invasive” species are targetted for the destruction, their true burden on their new ecosystem must be fully assessed. Expanding our understanding of conservation is going to be critical in helping maintain biodiversity and limit species loss.

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