Pest? Or Invasive species

The power of words

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

First just FYI: Beehiiv has been making some changes that really force you to pay...a lot of money. And their sharing feature hasn't been great. I want to recommend other people's newsletter to you! But...there aren't a lot of other science newsletter on Beehiiv! So. I may well be making a move soon. But fret not, you will still receive this email.

As I've gone about giving talks about my book, I often get people asking: What's the difference between a pest and an invasive species?

There are some definitional differences. A pest can be a native species, like a cockatoo in a trash bin or a bear in your bird feeder. Invasive species are often (though not always!) non-native.

But the real difference? One of these has the scientific stamp of approval. "Pest" to a lot of people working in conservation is vague. It's also not a term backed by data. It's just someone's opinion about an animal that they think sucks.

"Invasive species," however, is more solid. It's an organism that has invaded somewhere it's not supposed to be (though humans, of course, determine where an organism is "supposed" to be). Often, it's specifically an organism that humans have brought to a new environment, and which is thriving more than desired. Sometimes it is specifically eating or infecting or taking up space, and adversely affecting native species. This is especially true if those native species are rare, and the invading species is common.

In my book research, I noticed over time a big increase in the phrase "invasive species" or "human-wildlife conflict" over "pest" in the literature. "Pest" was much more common to refer to animals such as coyotes or wolves in the 19th century and early in the 20th century. Being a nerd, I also decided to take to Google Trends and see if there's a difference in the internet zeigeist.

A screenshot of "pest" vs "invasive species" in google trends from 2004-present

See Beehiiv won't let me pop in html that's a paid feature. Rude.

You can see here that "pests" shows a decline over time (though it ALSO has a weird yearly spike, I won't if that's to do with rat breeding seasons?), while "invasive species" shows a slight increase (again with spikes, this time appearing spring and fall, and I wonder if that lines up with changes in nature coverage).

What's fascinating to me, though, is that both of these terms come with what Francisco Santiago-Avila calls "epistemological violence." This means that when you label something a "pest" or an "invasive species" you say that it has no value, that it is less important than whatever it is you are trying to protect (your house, your crops, a native species).

Conservationists might not agree. They might feel invasive species as a phrase is detached. But these terms really do allow people to do whatever they need to to get rid of the organism in question. There are group activities where you can rip up plants. There are state-sanctioned hunts for snakes. There are bounties. It's ok. It's just a pest. Er, invasive species.

I'm not saying, of course, that we shouldn't get rid of these organisms. Honestly, in some cases, maybe we should. In others? Maybe we shouldn't. In a third set? It could go either way. But it's fascinating to me that these words--even phrases we see as detached and scientific--can have so much meaning.

Where have you been? 

Please tell me it's putting lipstick on a T. Rex because THEY MIGHT HAVE HAD LIPS. I'm not over it. It's too good.

Maybe it's reading about how early humans, and honestly, many modern Indigenous ones, eat rotting meat. With relish. I mean, if you're not dining on maggoty rotting seal, are you even paleo, bruh?

Maybe it's reading Jason Bittel's newsletter? It's the Sort of Funny Field Guide, and he and I have a LOT of things in common in terms of what we write about.

Where have I been?

I'm back in the New York Times talking about roach sex. Yes. For a while we really were worried about roach sex lives. Females respond to a sugary secretion from the male's tergal glands, which serves as a treat while the male gets it on. Until we started using sweet roach baits. Then, roaches evolved to find sweet bitter! What's a male roach to do to save his love life? Evolve a new kind of sugary bait...and mate a LOT faster. Complete with roach porn.

I'm also in Science News writing about a new tumor treatment in mice. Solid tumors, you see, often have really low oxygen levels inside them. Scientists want to take advantage of this and target the low oxygen environment--but it's not low or consistent enough. So engineers are deploying a tiny battery that wraps around the tumor and sucks up all the oxygen, creating a truly hostile environment.

Finally, TUESDAY! I'll be at NCSU in the library and then at the Natural Science Museum in Raleigh. I'd love to see your shining faces!