Species like the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) are classified as non-native in many places around the world. They are subject to ignominy and derision in places like Australia for example, where they are referred to as “flying rats”. Do they belong? Are they an environmental pest or an attractive and welcome garden visitor with a mellifluous call? Perhaps you associate them with a special place and time? These are examples of some of the multiple dimensions of nativeness that shape our perceptions of native and non-native species.Photo source: Creative Commons – “European Starling” by susie2778 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By Haylee Kaplan, Vishnu Prahalad and Dave Kendal

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Ecologists and conservationists regularly refer to some species as ‘native’ and other species as ‘non-native’. We know that all species originate in a particular location. We also know that humans transport some species to new locations, sometimes accidentally, often intentionally e.g., for agriculture, and increasingly for planting in our gardens and urban greenspaces. But what does the status of ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ connote? The meanings that are commonly derived from those labels are culturally constructed and reflect our own human values and ideals of what ‘nature’ ought to be. For instance, in Australia a garden plant can be considered ‘native’ despite being planted thousands of kilometres from its native bioregion. This idea of nativeness draws on cultural concepts rather than strict ecological definitions. So, when we’re including the concept of ‘nativeness’ in social research, say to understand people’s opinions on the eradication of a non-native species, we first need to understand what nativeness really means to people in particular contexts.

The first part of our study developed a framework for conceptualising these meanings by synthesising the findings of qualitative social research on public and stakeholder perceptions of nativeness in the academic literature. We found that the concept of nativeness is multidimensional, meaning that people can draw on several different meanings of nativeness when forming their opinions about native and non-native species.

We distinguished six main dimensions: 1) Belonging, or a sense that there is a right and wrong place for species to exist; 2) Human influence, which concerns humans’ role in transporting and controlling species outside their natural range; 3) Functional compatibility, or how well a species fits in with the local environment and ecosystem; 4) Amenity, which are the useful or desirable features provided by a species; 5) Negative impacts, which concerns the risk and manageability of detrimental impacts caused by species; and 6) Identity, or the way in which some species are symbolic and form part of our identities, such as an iconic species forming part of our national identity.   

In the second part of our study, we assessed whether previous quantitative social research on native or non-native species or landscapes, specifically research conducted in cities, incorporated a multidimensional concept of nativeness into their questionnaire design. In the majority of studies, only one or two dimensions were incorporated, most often ‘Negative impacts’. So, we’re not always fully capturing people’s views and may be making management recommendations based on incomplete evidence. We argue that for social research on nativeness to have meaningful applications for conservation policy and practice, we should incorporate a broader range of meanings of nativeness into research measures.