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10 ways humans could actually be enriching nature

Humans may have wreaked havoc on the Earth's atmosphere and wiped out many of its species. But nature is also responding positively to our presence in some surprising ways, says Inheritors of the Earth author Chris D. Thomas

1.     Wild species are moving into new habitats that have been created by humans.

Poppies long since started to grow in British wheat fields, and now they are seen on road verges. Meanwhile feral pigeons, whose ancestors nested on sea cliffs, have colonised our cliff-like city skylines from central London to New York, where they are hunted by peregrine falcons.

2.     Big animals are on the way back, as humans increasingly protect rather than persecute them.

The consequence is that cranes are breeding in Britain again, European bison are up from one wild population to thirty three, and whale watching is getting easier by the year.

3.     Higher temperatures are allowing animals and plants to thrive in parts of the world where they could not do so previously.

Tree bumblebees and brilliant-white egrets have colonised Britain recently, and have already have spread as far north as Yorkshire.

4.     Introduced species are settling in.

Escaped yellow-crested cockatoos are thriving in Hong Kong, while continuing to decline in their Indonesian homeland. Watch out for parakeets in London, and European blackbirds in Auckland.

5.     Most countries now support more species than they used to.

About 2000 extra species have established populations in Britain in the last couple of thousand years, and most of them only arrived in the last 200. Plus, hardly any of the new arrivals are endangering native species.

An 'introduced' parakeet hangs out with native pigeons in a London park. Image by Loz Pycock, Flickr.

6.     Evolution is allowing species to adjust to humans.

Fish have evolved to breed when they are smaller and younger, increasing the chances that they will escape the fisherman’s nets, and butterflies have changed their diets to make use of human-altered habitats.

7.     New races are being born.

Prickly Californian star-thistle plants, which arrived in the state less than a century ago, already have trouble mating with their Spanish ancestors, and introduced Hawaiian crickets have developed different accents to the mating songs of their Australian cousins.

8.     New species have come into existence with immodest speed.

A new kind of ‘apple fly’ evolved in North America because European colonists brought fruit trees to the New World. And house sparrows mated with Mediterranean ‘Spanish’ sparrows somewhere on an Italian farm; their descendants represent a brand new species, the Italian sparrow.

9.     The world could end up with more species, not fewer.

The current ‘speciation rate’ (the rate at which new animals and plants are coming into existence) may already be the highest ever. Eventually, this could increase the number of species on earth, although that might take the best part of a million years...

10.   Actually, that was nine positive things. 

Alas, a word of pessimism – the fact that many species are thriving in the modern world does not let us off the hook. Species are becoming extinct at perhaps the fastest rate since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, because humans have changed the world so much. Rhinos will most certainly disappear unless we protect them, Mexican Vaquita porpoises are drowning in fishing nets, and American Franklin trees only survive in parks and gardens. The most endangered animals and plants still need our help.

More about the author

Inheritors of the Earth

Chris D. Thomas

It is accepted wisdom today that human beings have irrevocably damaged the natural world. Yet what if this narrative obscures a more hopeful truth?

In Inheritors of the Earth, renowned ecologist and environmentalist Chris D. Thomas overturns the accepted story, revealing how nature is fighting back.

Many animals and plants actually benefit from our presence, raising biological diversity in most parts of the world and increasing the rate at which new species are formed, perhaps to the highest level in Earth's history. From Costa Rican tropical forests to the thoroughly transformed British landscape, nature is coping surprisingly well in the human epoch.

Chris Thomas takes us on a gripping round-the-world journey to meet the enterprising creatures that are thriving in the Anthropocene, from York's ochre-coloured comma butterfly to hybrid bison in North America, scarlet-beaked pukekos in New Zealand, and Asian palms forming thickets in the European Alps. In so doing, he questions our irrational persecution of so-called 'invasive species', and shows us that we should not treat the Earth as a faded masterpiece that we need to restore. After all, if life can recover from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, might it not be able to survive the onslaughts of a technological ape?

Combining a naturalist's eye for wildlife with an ecologist's wide lens, Chris Thomas forces us to re-examine humanity's relationship with nature, and reminds us that the story of life is the story of change.

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