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Classroom Resources: The New Normal

The New Normal

By Emma Marris

April-June 2010 (Vol. 11, No. 2)

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Discussion Questions

  1. The article posits that “The New Normal” is a world dominated by ecosystems that are a mixture of invasive and those native species that are able to persist, and that this is a new reality that conservation biologists need to accept rather than battle with a typical “Garden of Eden” mentality. It suggests that an old paradigm of working to protect natural patterns of diversity from human activities must be replaced by a new paradigm of accepting human-dominated ecosystems. Do you agree with the article on these points?  Why, or why not? Is it either-or, or a matter of degree? Might it be worth keeping some places on the planet as free as possible of human influence?
  2. The main character of the article is Joe Mascaro, a Ph.D. student studying novel ecosystems in Hawaii. Joe claims he never really cared about protecting native diversity as much as he is interested in the new ecosystems that are arising from interactions with humans. James Gibbs and others argue against the point of view that novel ecosystems are equivalent or an improvement over native ecosystems where natural processes dominate, but the article in the end sides with Mascaro. Whose side would you be on? Why?
  3. After reading the description of the peer-review process given in this article, what is your reaction? Does it seem that value-laden statements are used to review articles? Why is the idea of accepting novel ecosystems as the new normal creating so much stress in the world of ecology and conservation biology?
  4. Look up “biotic or biological homogenization.” Compare this idea to the discussion of novel ecosystems in this article. Are the two ideas compatible? What is lost when ecosystems become homogenized? Do you think the whole planet – say in 1000 years – will be relatively homogenous compared to the way it is today, or even more so, 500 years ago? Will some species be gone? Do you feel that this a problem? Why or why not?
  5. Depending on your age, you might find the statement about how “an older generation” approached conservation to strike a chord. Do you feel that Mascaro is representative of a new generation of conservation biologists? Why does James Gibbs not agree? Is he “old”, or “young”? Kareiva is portrayed as adhering to the “new” view; is he of the older or younger generation?
  6. Lugo’s study is quoted as finding a greater diversity of species in forest plantations than native forests. Hepinstall et al. (see below) found that species richness of birds can increase during ecosystem conversion, and then fall off over time, as species more adapted to human activities came to dominate ecosystems. Compare the results of these two studies.
  7. Is the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill going to create “novel ecosystems”? Will it matter if the diversity there now is replaced by organisms more tolerant of petroleum-influenced marine systems? Should we bother saving the oil-affected wildlife (sea turtles, pelicans, etc.) or should we just let the populations die off and wait for nature to assemble a new system better adapted to petroleum?
  8. How much of conservation biology is about arguing philosophical positions such as “Garden of Eden” and “novel ecosystems” vs. scientific results?

Websites for Further Information

  • The Nature Conservancy:
  • ESA document on ecosystem services:
  • National Invasive Species Information Center:

Novel Ecosystems in the News

  • University of Wisconsin-Milwauki article on Joe Mascaro (November 2009):

Peer-reviewed Literature (in addition to the citations listed in the article)

  • Kareiva, P., M. Marvier, and M. MClure. 2000. Recovery and management options for spring/Summer Chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Science 290: 977-979.
  • Hepinstall, J.A., M. Alberti, and J.M. Marzluff.  2008. Predicting land cover change and avian community responses in rapidly urbanizing environments. Landscape Ecology 23: 1257-1276.

Key Concepts

  • Novel ecosystems
  • Ecosystem services
  • Natural patterns and processes
  • Ecological patterns and processes
  • Human dominated ecosystems
  • Exotic species
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