I love these sorts of experiments. Ecology (and considering conservation ecology a special subset of the larger discipline) is a messy business, mainly because ecosystems are complex, non-linear, emergent, interactive, stochastic and meta-stable entities that are just plain difficult to manipulate experimentally. Therefore, making inference of complex ecological processes tends to be enhanced when the simplest components are isolated.
Enter the ‘mini-ecosystem-in-a-box’ approach to ecological research. I’ve blogged before about some clever experiments to examine the role of connectivity among populations in mitigating (or failing to mitigate) extinction risk, and alluded to others indicating how harvest reserves work to maximise population persistence. This latest microcosm experiment is another little gem and has huge implications for conservation.
A fairly long-standing controversy in conservation biology, and in invasive species biology in particular, is whether intact ecosystems are in any way more ‘resilient’ to invasion by alien species (the latter most often being deliberately or inadvertently introduced by humans – think of Australia’s appalling feral species problems; e.g., buffalo, foxes and cats, weeds). Many believe by default that more ‘pristine’ (i.e., less disturbed by humans) communities will naturally provide more ecological checks against invasives because there are more competitors, more specialists and more predators. However, considering the ubiquity of invasives around the world, this assumption has been challenged vehemently.
The paper I’m highlighting today uses the microcosm experimental approach to show how native predators, when abundant, can reduce the severity of an invasion. Using a system of two mosquito species (one ‘native’ – what’s ‘native’ in a microcosm? [another subject] – and one ‘invasive’) and a native midge predator, Juliano and colleagues demonstrate in their paper Your worst enemy could be your best friend: predator contributions to invasion resistance and persistence of natives that predators are something you want to keep around.
In short, they found little evidence of direct competition between the two mosquitoes in terms of abundance when placed together without predators, but when the midges were added, the persistence of the invasive mosquito was reduced substantially. Of course, the midge predators did do their share of damage on the native mosquitoes in terms of reducing the latter’s abundance, but through a type of competitive release from their invasive counterparts, the midges’ reduction of the invasive species left the native mosquito free to develop faster (i.e., more per capita resources).
Such a seemingly academic result has huge conservation implications. In most systems, predators are some of the largest and slowest-reproducing species, so they are characteristically the first to feel the hammer of human damage. From bears to sharks, and tigers to wolves, big, charismatic predators are on the wane worldwide. Juliano and colleagues’ nice experimental work with insects reminds us that keeping functioning native ecosystems intact from all trophic perspectives is imperative.
Juliano, S., Lounibos, L., Nishimura, N., & Greene, K. (2009). Your worst enemy could be your best friend: predator contributions to invasion resistance and persistence of natives Oecologia DOI: 10.1007/s00442-009-1475-x