camels“Species are born, and then they die.”

Because of my tendency to read pretty much anything, it does mean that I occasionally read something that’s incredibly niche and won’t be of much interest to many of my readers. I find myself at that position again, but it’s my duty to review as much as possible so here we go with a tale of ecology, biodiversity and Japanese knotweed – Where Do Camels Belong?

Though I’d forgotten his name, turns out I read another book by Ken Thompson five years ago, that one called Do We Need Pandas? He is an ecologist who seems to has written a few books on biodiversity and overlooked aspects of the natural world – one of his books is a study of weeds – but has an informative, accessible style, meaning he’s a great introduction to some of these topics that the layman (such as myself) might not know much about.

It opens with the titular question, discussing where we would expect to find camels. The answer isn’t quite as easy as it first seems. Most people probably associate camels with the Middle East and northern Africa, but Bactrian camels live in Central Asia, the camel evolved in North America, retains it’s greatest diversity in South America, and the dromedary is only found wild in Australia. So which is really its home?

Thompson then launches into a study of invasive species and how animals and plants traverse the world, adapting to new environments and, often in the eyes of humans, doing a lot of damage. There are discussions as to how long something has to live somewhere before it’s considered native, and how that opinion can change depending on how cute it is. For example, rabbits aren’t native to Britain, but we used to have wolves and no one wants to reintroduce them much. Which has the greater right to live here? Do we have the right to make that choice? Humans are, of course, perhaps the most invasive species of all, responsible for many of the particularly bad invaders.

But Thompson argues that, actually, aliens aren’t bad things at all – at least, not all of them. Scientists, helped along by the media, pick and choose the species they want to deem alien and invasive, and ignore some of the facts. Zebra mussels, for example, clog pipes and attach themselves to ships, but they make the water they live in cleaner and increase food stocks for crabs and fish. Tamarisk is a plant that supposedly takes up too much water and dries out river beds, but those rivers are already being over managed by humanity who have the right to more water than even flows in them.

As usual with science, there are a lot of “we just don’t know” moments here, and this leaves us with many questions. Would Britain have been any better if the Romans hadn’t brought along most familiar vegetable species? Should we introduce Iberian lynx to Britain, since they’re dying out where they “belong”, and would help solve the rabbit problem? Why is bracken not considered an annoyance, even though it’s more invasive than most aliens? And how much loss has there really been to Hawaii’s ecosystem?

It’s a really interesting look at an often misunderstood aspect of the natural world, and makes us look at ourselves. We are, once again, asking the wrong questions and seem to have considered ourselves above and outside of nature, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideas we’ve ever come up with. Food for thought, at least.