I’m recently reminded of why I’m not on Facebook. In a moment of weakness I took a look at the Sciblogs Facebook page. The first thing I came across was a commenter ruminating on a recent post of mine:
‘Oh FFS, Sciblogs! Not MORE straw-man pseudoscience from Steer?!?!?!?’
Charming. Another was more positive though, referring a friend to a post of mine with this comment:
‘If you’re feeling sciency today, read this; it’s very interesting’
Isn’t that nice? Alas, it was met with the following parry from another:
‘If you are feeling sciency, read something other than Jamie Steer. He’s just pushing a barrow’
Ouch! Another had this treat to offer about a post of mine:
‘Garhhgrr what is this?! Tinfoil hat soapbox platformism by someone who knows little about lizards. If you want to write an article about potential impacts of lizards, talk to a herpetologist! Don’t just selectively quote articles supporting your political worldview’
So much rage…and confusing too. What is my ‘political worldview’? But a kind soul jumps to my defense:
‘Why have you dived into an ad hominem attack? I read this without a position and what I need to see is a reasoned response or link to evidence that Jamie is selectively quoting’
Indeed. But, of course, on and on it goes.
What a mire Facebook is at the best of times. All the personal attacks could really get you down. Never mind, I tell myself, just pick yourself up, dust off your tinfoil hat, and get back to pushing that barrow…
Seriously though it’s a shame that so many of these conversations go on outside of the blog itself. The whole point of writing a post is to encourage a conversation. Instead, debates seem to often be transferred to other fora where I, and other interested readers, won’t see them.
Sure, I don’t long for the constant name-calling. But there are a lot of good things that get missed when people avoid talking to you. When stripped of all the emotive nonsense, for example, the above request – the one about asking a herpetologist – is a good one. What do herpetologists think of my conversation about rainbow skinks? I’d like to know – that’s one of the reasons why I asked…
Well, enter Lady Luck. As so often happens, a colleague informed me of a conversation a group of New Zealand herpetologists was in fact having on my recent rainbow skink post through the Society for Research on Amphibians and Reptiles in New Zealand’s public Facebook page.
Let’s check that out shall we.
Ask a herpetologist
Disappointingly I am initially met here with the same slurs. One immediately called me ‘disingenuous’, another ‘naïve’ – neither lowering themselves to providing any evidence (sound familiar?) or justification for their claims though. Not cool.
But things from there got more collegial (maybe they just needed time to let off some steam). The next commenter had this to say:
‘A fun article that made some useful observations but I’m of the opinion that natural patterns of diversity are worth protecting from invasive species even if their impacts are ambiguous’
Fair enough. The commenter then goes on to write that:
‘Surely none of us are ecologically naïve enough to think that adding species to ecosystems has no impact whatsoever?’
Again with the ‘naivety’, but it’s a straw man argument. No one, least of all myself, has argued that rainbow skinks have no impact on their receiving environment. My argument was around significance and balance (i.e., have the pros and cons been weighed?).
‘As for responding to invasive species I also prefer our precautionary policy over the American model of waiting until a negative impact can be demonstrated before spp. can be added to an unwanted organisms list’
This is an interesting comment. Do the Americans use a different interpretation of the precautionary approach from us? I’m genuinely not aware of it but would love to learn more.
Another commenter then takes a different tack:
‘It does make an interesting contrast with how other exotics are treated. Ranoidea aurea [green and golden bell frog] is known to consume some endangered herps [herpetofauna] and inverts [invertebrates], is spreading its range (several recent populations in southern South Island illustrate the potential), occupies a broad niche from gardens and pasture wetlands to forests, can reach absolutely huge densities too, but is freely shipped around the country by the pet trade with many inevitable releases of unwanted extras/adults. What’s the difference?’
A good point that builds on the question I asked in my post. Why are some introduced species selected as Unwanted Organisms and not others? After all, rainbow skinks are by no means the only introduced species that may impact on native biodiversity (or compromise other values).
The commenter continues:
‘There is obviously much scope for study into direct and knock-on impacts such as delicata [rainbow skink] potentially boosting predator numbers (i.e. kingfishers, which in greater numbers then clean out the local Naultinus [green gecko]), but perhaps quite relevant too is the effect of vilifying a pest when it is entirely possible the only effect this vilification will ever have is to encourage cruelty to lizards, including many natives mistaken for the evil must-be-squashed invaders…Is that outcome – probably killing of native lizards – worthwhile when we don’t even know for sure if delicata is even a significant problem to start with?’
Great points here, especially the latter one around vilification. We know that people often struggle to distinguish between the ‘right’ wildlife and the ‘wrong’ wildlife. Inciting hatred of one kind can thus lead to perverse consequences for the other.
And what will it achieve anyway? Squashing rainbow skinks in ones and twos will likely have no effect on them on a population-level (but will cause the suffering of those affected). Worse, if people mistake ‘good’ for ‘evil’ they may cause population level declines in native lizards that are in low numbers.
Another commenter agrees that the name change seems off:
‘I think this has started an interesting discussion. I think the original blog makes a good point about the changing of the common name – it does seem strange that we have given L. delicata [rainbow skink] a particularly derogatory name which we don’t do for other introduced species that have ‘known’ negative effects on native species’
Then makes some further pertinent points:
‘I agree with [another commenter] that taking a precautionary approach to protect our indigenous lizard species is appropriate’
I also agree with a precautionary approach. I simply questioned the interpretation of ‘precautionary’. What are the limits of it? Or are there none? More on that to follow.
The commenter then agrees with the point about the frogs:
‘[Another commenter] raises the inconsistency of how we treat different exotic species. I would like to know – why has the L. delicata become an Unwanted Organism but the introduced frogs haven’t (potentially they can spread chytrid fungus to our native frogs)?’
I agree. And given all the mights and maybes around determining effects on valued biodiversity, surely vast further numbers of introduced species should be considered unwanted too? Perhaps the division between ‘introduced’ and ‘invasive’ even starts to break down?
Then another commenter weighs in:
‘I agree with the comments that the article is a naïve assessment of the situation. Yes, there has been a general lack of research into the potential impacts of delicata on native species to date. The initial work looking at behavioural interactions was very limited and focused on a native species that would arguably be less influenced by delicata given it has a completely different ecology’
Again I’m ‘naïve’. Why? Well, because:
‘The few ‘studies’ attempting to describe population trends following the establishment of delicata simply have not been running long enough to draw solid conclusions. But this does not mean there are no effects…we just don’t know what the effects will be (positive, neutral or negative)’
Ah, so I’m naïve because I’ve assumed that rainbow skinks have no effects. Is that what I argued though? No, I simply suggested that there was no good evidence to date, which is what the research shows. I’m questioning whether, or to what degree, we should require evidence to justify management decisions on introduced wildlife. If that question is ‘naïve’ then I guess guilty as charged.
The commenter goes on:
‘Direct behavioural interactions between delicata and other heliothermic [gaining heat from the sun] species needs to be explored before we can attempt to draw conclusions about potential long-term impacts. We also need to consider the cumulative effects of multiple invasive species on native fauna. Hypothetically, the direct effects (eg opportunistic predation) on native lizards by exotic frogs may not be great enough to cause significant declines in native lizard populations and equally, potential indirect effects from delicata on native lizards such as prey competition or disease vectoring may have subtle impacts at a population level. But native populations subjected to the additive effects of exotic frogs AND delicata, could be tipped into measurable declines’
Fair point – another may to the add to the list of others. But what does it prove unless any of them are tested? With a little imagination you could probably come up with dozens of other mays. How many of them do we have to consider though? Again, are there any limits?
And more from the same commenter:
‘Thus, the conservative approach, prohibiting the movement of delicata throughout the country and attempting to eradicate new populations from valuable conservation areas (e.g. GBI), which are allowed for by listing this species as an unwanted organism is sensible in my opinion. If the results of robust research fail to show negative impacts, then a reassessment of status may be warranted. As for the frogs, I think there is precedent to list exotic frogs as Unwanted Organisms to prohibit domestic movements, currently facilitated by the pet trade. Again, we know little about their impacts (predominantly based on anecdotal evidence and inference) on natives thus we should be taking a precautionary approach. History tells us that “innocent until proven guilty” is not a sensible approach with respect to invasive species’
Once again we see the logic here. If you can prove the impacts of an introduced species on native biodiversity then you have an ‘invasive species’ on your hands – an Unwanted Organism. Got no evidence? No matter, so long as you can think of a may you can also consider it invasive. Evidence is thus little more than an aside – useful for informing management options perhaps, but little else.
What chance do Unwanted Organisms really then have of being delisted? The motivation to study their negative effects is surely weak as it will only reinforce the same. And if an effect is not shown you will still have to point to all the other mays anyway.
Meanwhile the motivation to look for positive effects is slight to non-existent. Who would fund such a study? No wonder lists of invasive species grow longer with every revision. To use a herpetological analogy, it’s like a pitfall trap, once you get in it’s extremely hard to climb out.
It’s great to see this stuff being discussed, something that a few of the above commenters also expressed support for. But it’s tough raising topics and then essentially being shut out of the resultant debate. I think that’s a fair criticism of what’s going on here.
It’s doubly irritating when I see that there are some really good and valid points being made – it’s not all nasty name-calling out there in cyberspace! I want to have the option of engaging with those who have reasonable (and on-topic) points to make. Fair call?
Here’s a suggestion. Perhaps people who comment – or notice other peoples’ comments – in other public fora could make the same comments on the actual Sciblogs post? That way we can keep the various threads of the discussion together. Or they might just add a link to where that other discussion on it is happening.
I understand too. Some people want to keep their conversations to their own groups. That’s OK. But honestly if you’re commenting on publically accessible fora it’s out there anyway. Why not then just let me and other readers in?
 Perhaps, but it’s worth noting that that study chose native copper skinks because the researcher thought it the most likely species to be directly influenced by rainbow skinks. This contention was supported by a detailed table laying out the rationale for that decision based on similar behavioural and ecological characteristics.
Featured image: Dinosaur (or a plague skink on acid?) © Pixabay