Ragamuffin Earth

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NEWS FEATURE Vol 460|16 NATURE|Vol 460|23 July 2009 RAGAMUFFIN EARTH A small group of ecologists is looking beyond the pristine to study the scrubby, feral and untended. Emma Marris learns to appreciate ‘novel ecosystems’. J oe Mascaro, a PhD student in a T-shirt and floral print shorts, is soaking in the diversity of the Hawaiian jungle. Above, a green canopy blocks out most of the sky. Aerial roots wend their way down past tropical trunks, tree ferns and moss-covered prop roots to an understorey of ferns and seedlings. The jungle is lush, humid and thick with mosquitoes. It is also as cosmopolitan as London’s Heathrow airport. This forest on Big Island features mango trees from India (Mangifera indica); Cecropia obtusifolia,…show more content…
In 1979, Lugo was managing researchers who were measuring the ground covered by trees within pine plantations that were not being actively managed. His technicians came back to headquarters sweaty and discouraged. “They said that they couldn’t measure the trees without clearing all the new undergrowth,” says Lugo. “They said it was impenetrable. I thought they were wimps.” The idea that ecosystems dominated by pine, an invasive species, were so thick that his workers couldn’t even walk through them went against a central assumption of ecology: that native forests will be the lushest. Millennia of co-evolution should have created an ecosystem in which almost every niche is filled, converting the available energy into trees and other species in the most efficient way. Conservationists also generally assume that native ecosystems ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANUSZ KAPUSTA job of providing ‘ecosystem services’, those things that nature does that benefit humanity, such as filtering water in wetlands, controlling erosion on hillsides, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and building soil. Provision of ecosystem services is a popular argument for preserving intact ecosystems, but many of its advocates blanch a little when it comes to making the same case for these ‘weedy’ areas. Mascaro actually prefers novel ecosystems to some native ones that are so
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