Public Views on Biodiversity Change: The Role of Invasive Non-Native Species

Published on 2 August 2010 in Ecosystems and biodiversity



Worldwide there is growing concern among policymakers and conservation biologists over the impact of invasive non-native species on native biodiversity and ecosystems, reflected by an increasing number of policy documents that refer to biological invasions and numerous examples of conservation action aiming to reduce impacts of such invasions. However, little is known about the public perception of invasive non-native species: What do ‘invasiveness’ and ‘nativeness’ mean to the general public? Which characteristics of species do members of the public draw on when discussing their views about biodiversity management? Does non-nativeness matter?


Key Points

FlowerWe examined the characteristics that members of the public in Scotland draw on when discussing animal and plant species and biodiversity management. Through qualitative methods, we were able to identify recurrent arguments in people’s discussions with us, expressed in their own words rather than necessarily in scientific language. These included attributes such as a species’ harmfulness, role and importance in the system, dominance and suppression of weaker species, endangeredness, uniqueness, and to a limited degree also non-nativeness. While invasiveness was often not directly mentioned, many study participants alluded to the phenomenon by speaking about harmfulness, dominance and recent population increase. The role of humans in fostering biological invasions was another important argument brought forward by our participants: The need for active biodiversity management was generally considered as more urgent and legitimate where humans were seen to have introduced a species, or contributed to the imbalance of a situation.

In subsequent quantitative studies, we identified the relative influence that such arguments played in shaping public views on species and management options. Especially perceptions of harmfulness, a species’ importance in the ecosystem context, recent population change and the loss of balance within an ecosystem had very strong impacts on people’s views on species and biodiversity management. Non-nativeness, however, had only limited influence on their attitudes.
Our findings suggest that to make their approaches compatible to the ideas of the general public, policymakers and scientists should (a) include the human role in biological invasions in their debate and (b) clearly and transparently separate arguments related to non-nativeness and invasiveness, as invasiveness – through the ideas of dominance, recent population increase and harm – is a concept that relates well to public views, whereas non-nativeness does not.

Research Undertaken

Tree cuttingOver the last five years, we conducted four studies into public perceptions of and attitudes towards animal and plant species. These addressed biodiversity management in Scotland’s upland as well as coastal regions, and also included comparisons with seven other European countries, ranging from Romania to the Netherlands.

While two of these studies were qualitative, involved group discussions and thus allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of meaning, the other two studies were quantitative, drew on questionnaire-based surveys (n=249 for a case study on the East Lothian Coast; n=2347 for the European survey) and provided estimates of the relative importance of certain arguments in shaping people’s views. Findings from the Scottish sample were not significantly different from those of other study sites.

Policy Implications

Our main findings suggest that

  • human responsibility for biological invasions is a key argument in the public discourse on biodiversity change
  • invasiveness – through the ideas of dominance, recent population increase and harm – is a concept that relates well to public views, whereas non-nativeness does not. 
As a consequence, we argue, first, that public debates on non-native and invasive species instigated by scientists and policymakers need to be more reflexive, i.e., more aware of the human role in biological invasions.
Second, it seems that policy and scientific debates on biological invasions resting on a combination of arguments (involving both non-nativeness and invasiveness) seem to miss the point that the Scottish and European public is making – namely that the provenance of a species matters far less than the impact that it causes and the morality concerning the role of humans in fostering an invasion. The argument of non-nativeness in the conservation discourse could thus be viewed as largely obsolete.
Third, arguments that relate to human responsibility, non-nativeness and invasiveness should be made explicit and clearly separated in the debate.
Fourth, our studies illustrate that we need more than simple opinion polls in order to understand public (including scientists’ and policymakers’) views on biodiversity management. More sophisticated research approaches are needed, both theory-led and in-depth, exploratory studies. Instead of forcing scientific concepts on the general public such work could stimulate a more reflected, mutual exchange of ideas and values between policymakers, scientists and citizens alike.


Dr Anke Fischer, Sebastian Selge and Dr René van der Wal


Ecosystems and biodiversity

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