Aliens in your backyard

UFOs – unidentified flora (and fauna) objects – can be overpowered if you nurture native plants and animals. In the process, your environment will become substantially more welcoming.

by Kaileigh Nichols | photography by Spencer Wynn

Aliens are everywhere. No, not the spaceship variety, but the plant, animal and microbe variety. These usually, slowly creeping and seemingly harmless invaders are slowly suffocating native species and altering local landscapes to better suit their needs. They will plant themselves anywhere they ca n to invoke their squatter rights to strangle and edge out the other species competing for similar resources. We call these menaces invasive species.

The best way to avoid an alien takeover is to support the native species in your local area like the swamp milkweed and bulrushes seen here.

Invasive species are defined as being a plant, animal, or microorganism found in a place where it has never been before. Some of these species are very damaging to the new environments in which they have taken up residence, while others may even benefit these new environments.

Over the last several decades, invasives have become more prevalent due to international trading and shifts in climate and weather patterns, making certain areas more suitable to new species that weren’t there before. These aliens can adapt to their environments and spread quickly because they typically have no natural predators in the new areas in which they are found, giving them free rein to take over an environment without the consent of native species.

Tree lines and animal species ranges have shifted to accommodate changes in weather patterns and many once called invasives have now become integrated components to native species diets and life cycles, like the eucalyptus tree in California.

So, why should you care? Species have changed and altered their environment for millennia, so if something is thriving, in general, that’s good, right? Ecosystems are constantly in flux and changing to match the available resources and landscape and certainly some invasive alien species have altered ecosystems beyond the point of no return.

But the question remains … is that a bad thing? Are the species invading or is the Earth just adapting? The answers remain unclear and are not as straightforward as we would like.

Native species needing to adapt to abrupt changes because of invasives is one of the greatest resiliency tests they will face. If native species are struggling to adapt to changes, how much effort and energy should we be putting in to help? At the end of the day, changes in environments are an inevitable part of life on Earth.

I’m not advocating that we do nothing to mitigate the impacts of invasive species, but it’s worth noting that eradicating invasive species in a globalized world is next to impossible and very costly.

Additionally, the means through which are often necessary to remove certain invasives are usually damaging to the environment in other ways, such as herbicides or pesticides. So, where’s the line? Where are we willing to compromise on the integrity of a given ecosystem?

The flip side of this narrative being that if native species are able to adapt to changes brought on by invasives, at which point do we stop labelling a species as invasive and start recognizing it as part of the infrastructure, or, potentially, using different language altogether to assess a threat to an ecosystem.

Bear in mind that rapid changes to ecosystems can be devastating to our economy and lifestyles if there are significant losses to crop yields, biodiversity and the habitats we rely on for trading, manufacturing and food. Equally, it would be next to impossible to prevent and/or stop all changes in our world’s ecosystems brought on by invasive species within a highly globalized world system, nor could we replace all the systems which have already been altered beyond the point of no return.

So, we are tasked with walking a fine line between allowing our normal man-made systems to function without interruption and not wasting resources (time, money, man hours, natural resources, etc.) trying to control invasive species that may not threaten our way of life. One other wrench in this balancing act is presented by those who have empathy for the flora and fauna that share ecosystems with us.

It is also interesting to consider that the existence of modern man is really only a blip on the timeline of the Earth – about 200,000 out of 4.2 billion years, or 0.05 per cent of her life thus far.

We, as a species, don’t really like change because we’re not used to it. Earth, on the other hand, has had five mass extinctions before man even was able to evolve and, each time, she continued to grow, change and adapt to the new weather and climate patterns and landscapes. For us mortals, change is bad, change is unknown, change is uncertainty and so we fear it. We like clear answers and we certainly don’t like surprises when it comes to our immediate surroundings and environments unless explicitly created by our own motivations.

It is true that our world is changing and in a direction that, at this point, is mostly unclear. Abrupt and sudden changes to environments are never ideal for human and non-human species alike.

So, what can you do to ensure these aliens aren’t invading your backyard? Next time you’re gardening, consider the native pollinators/animals in your area and which native species they rely on for survival and make your decisions accordingly. Make conscious choices to only plant and support recommended species from your local conservation authority and government agencies and encourage your neighbours to do the same.

The best way to avoid an alien takeover is to prop up and support the native species in your local area. We should never underestimate the power small-scale efforts can have on our larger efforts to mitigate changes to our environment.

Resources:

Inspection Canada

Environment Canada

Kaileigh Nichols has a degree in environmental resource sciences with a specialization in restoration and rehabilitation, and a degree in digital geography and GIS (geographic information system) and has been very active in science data collection. She is also certified in the Ontario Stream Assessment Protocol and the Ontario Benthic Biomonitoring Network.