Book review: Where do camels belong: Why invasive species aren’t all bad- Ken Thompson

I was curious to find more about this book after it was mentioned by a speaker at the Toronto MG Technical Update in January of this year.

The author, Ken Thompson is a plant ecologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK) in the Dept of Animal and Plant Sciences.

I found it slow going – the reading, that is. I spent so much time looking into claims that he makes in the book that I despaired of ever finishing. It would take a person with a strong scientific back ground to do a thorough job of researching every claim, but here is an example: On pages 60 to 68, Thompson says, (and I paraphrase) that ‘persecuting’ loosestrife is and always has been a waste of time; that after the first strong first wave, stands decline and are not particularly problematic thereafter. My reading at details the many, many impacts of alien, invasive purple loosestrife. In no way can the plant be deemed not problematic. He has a similar view of Zebra Mussels.

In fairness, Thompson’s assertion that human-caused degradations to ecosystems can give alien species gaps in which to thrive may have validity. He shows no empirical data to back that up, however. Yes, humans are responsible for the introduction (accidental or purposeful) of animals, plants, insects and fungi into new areas. However, the author says “Most species transported to new countries or regions fail to establish at all, and of the minority that do only a few go on to become really abundant and eventually have any environmental or economic impact.” (page 117). I disagree!

The book takes on the flavour of a personal rant quickly. Thompson cherry picks examples of species invasions which he says are not problematic, but avoids what I consider tough customers: kudzu in the US; cane toads in Australia; rabbits in New Zealand; Emerald Ash Borer; Spotted Lantern Fly….

The author does not always check his facts. He trots out the well-worn story of Starlings being introduced into New York City (1890) by a person who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America. Starlings are an introduced pest, but the theatrical connection is sketchy at best and the birds were already well established in North America 40 years earlier. Here’s an excellent article from Duke University about introductions in general and a movement in the 1800’s called Acclimatization. It was responsible for the movement of many animals and plants around the world. StarlingsLiterary-History

Thompson sees the movement of plants and animals in geological time, using as an example the movement of camels through North America, then to South America where they evolved into llamas and alpacas.

We do not operate on geologic time. We must confront the problem of alien species moving world-wide now. We do not have eons to wait for things to level out or for continents to re-form themselves. I think Thompson is being short-sighted and playing with smoke and mirrors. I don’t know why. To sell books? I will not be reading his book “Do We Need Pandas?”.

Reviewed by Leslye Glover, MG