Colourful Aliens

The phrase ‘invasive species’ is thrown around carelessly and often inaccurately nowadays, to the point that it is almost rendered meaningless. Few serious conservationists, however, would dispute that invasives as properly defined are one of the foremost threats confronting wildlife across the globe. Some commentators accuse conservationists of using nationalistic, even racist language when describing the threat of invasive species. It’s apparently somehow bigoted to talk about non-native species which ‘don’t belong’ here or to describe anything as alien, as if Himalayan Balsam should be discussed on the same terms as Syrian refugees.

That’s a pretty simplistic analysis to say the least, and I personally have no problem with simultaneously appreciating the beauty of a species which happens not to be native whilst also acknowledging that if it is causing a problem and eradication is feasible (without unacceptable collateral damage) then eradicated it must be. In other words, becoming fond of a non-native species doesn’t mean you’ve turned into an irrational bunny or tree hugger, and nor does wanting to control the impact of invasives make you some kind of bigoted monster.

I, for example, have a soft spot for rhododendron leafhoppers – see here for more – which are an alien species in the UK but only invasive in as much as they might damage rhododendron (plenty of conservationists would be cheering them on). And whenever I remember to look, I enjoy the superbly coloured Rosemary Beetles that dwell in a bush outside one of the buildings I work in. They originate from North America and Southern Europe respectively, but are none the less beautiful for it.

Of course, a large proportion of new additions to national faunas and floras are as a result of species being moved around by human action. In this way, non-native species give many a budding naturalist their first notable records. Back in 2013 I found another introduced* rhododendron feeding leafhopper (Placcotettix taeniatifrons) on Whiteknights Campus, which turns out to be only the fourth site for this species in the UK. Then there’s Anthrenus angustefasciatus, my fortuitously discovered new beetle species for the UK (alas not yet widely noted – there clearly isn’t much interest out there in Dermestidae!). In the absence of more evidence it’s impossible to say whether it got here naturally, but since many of the carpet beetles are highly synanthropic it’s quite possible that it too was introduced accidentally.

Last week I happened on some aphids chewing up another introduced plant on campus, small balsam (Impatiens parviflora). The aphids themselves are quite likely not to be native to the UK either, and I am endeavouring to find out what species they are. Watch this space.

Aphids on small balsam.
Aphids on small balsam.

One final thought is that with the seemingly unstoppable march of biotic homogenization we’d better get used to finding joy in the small range of highly successful species that will soon be all we can find anywhere.Those of us who learn to appreciate the finer points of the weird, wonderful and downright beautiful aliens among us now will probably find the future an easier place to live!

*Perhaps introduced is a more constructive word than alien or non-native. It’s somewhat friendlier!

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