Rethinking invasive plants: Not all bad for wildlife?

Credit: G. Thompson.

In a surprising twist to traditional conservation practices, a recent study in Connecticut reveals that some invasive plants, often removed for harming ecosystems, might actually be just as beneficial as native plants for local wildlife, particularly insect-eating birds.

This research, published in the journal Biological Invasions, challenges the common view that invasive species are entirely detrimental to local habitats.

Researchers from Great Hollow Nature Preserve and Ecological Research Center and Wesleyan University conducted extensive experiments in an 800-acre forest preserve in western Connecticut.

They studied the amount of insects (arthropods) and their nutritional value (measured by protein content) on both invasive and native plant species.

The invasive plants included species like Japanese barberry and Morrow’s honeysuckle, while the native plants included striped maple and American beech.

The team used nets to prevent birds from accessing some of the plants, allowing them to compare how many insects were found on plants with and without bird interference.

They analyzed over 17,000 arthropods collected from 240 trees and shrubs to assess which plants offered the best food resources for birds.

Contrary to what many might expect, the results showed that the invasive plants were just as good, if not better, than the native plants in providing food resources.

Non-native honeysuckle, for example, had high levels of both insect biomass and quality, and attracted birds frequently. Japanese barberry, however, was less beneficial compared to other invasives.

Dr. Chad Seewagen, one of the researchers, pointed out that these findings suggest conservation efforts should not blindly target all invasive plants for removal. Instead, it’s crucial to evaluate whether the native plants that replace the invasives can actually offer better resources for wildlife.

This study highlights the need for a more thoughtful approach to managing invasive species, taking into account the actual benefits or drawbacks of both non-native and native plants in specific environments.

The findings encourage land managers to assess the real impact of removing invasives, especially considering the costs and potential disruption to ecosystems.

The researchers advocate for a balanced perspective on invasive plant management, recognizing that in some cases, these non-native species might play a valuable role in supporting local wildlife, just as much as the native plants intended to replace them.

This nuanced view could lead to more effective and sustainable conservation strategies that truly benefit ecosystems and the wildlife that depend on them.

Source: KSR.