Defending the Giant Python

I’m always a bit uncomfortable about the semantic linkage of one of my favorite artifacts (the Python computer language) and a terrifying invasive species. So I was a bit relieved by what Emma Marris said in defense of the python at Dot Earth.

I also think her sensibilities about nature are eminently sensible. Our task is not to make an inevitably futile attempt to freeze Nature at its state at the exact moment before human intervention. Our task is to make room for a dynamic natural world interwoven with our crowded human one.

This, ultimately, is what I think is wrong with the “endangered species” view of the environment Endangered Species Act strategy (see comments). We don’t have much hope of protecting a species once it is in serious decline. We have no hope at all of protecting a habitat once it hits the limits of climate change.

My peculiar linguistic sympathies for pythons aside, all we can hope to do is to save some space for nature itself. And even that is a challenge.


  1. I think there is a more fundamental problem with the “endangered species” view of the environment. Mainly that we don't focus our efforts to protect the most important species. Instead we focus on the large charismatic animals who typically play a minor role in the ecosystems they inhabit.

    It is the seemingly small and insignificant species that play virtually all the important roles in any given ecosystem. How much time to we spend protecting them when we don't even spend enough effort studding them (this is mainly an issue of funding not a lack of curiosity from scientists).

  2. What you mean by the "endangered species" view is quite at odds with the controversy in the US about the Endangered Species Act (ESA) which quite specifically protects all species, no matter how obscure. See snail darters for instance.

    I should have been more clear. I was referring to the well-inetntioned ESA which explicitly protects habitat of any species noted as endangered. It has caused many perverse outcomes ("build something quick before that butterfly gets listed") and it simply writes off the fact that in nature, species ranges change, and that as climate change accelerates, protecting habotat wil do a worse and worse job of protecting species.

    But this is NOT the charismatic megafauna problem I refer to.

  3. Sorry for my confusion. The American endangered species act has some important difference from the Canadian species at risk act.

    I do think that there are species that simply are not worth the effort to save. The tricky part is the having a good idea of which species aren't involved in vital ecosystem processes; we aren't very good at this yet.

  4. Michael, the ESA never has been very effective unless the habitat in question is on federal land. Elsewhere, i.e. in most places for most listed species, all the listing affects is projects requiring a federal permit. Even then, projects are most often mitigated rather than stopped, to the overall detriment of the species.

    Dan, IIRC there was a very recent paper (sorry, didn't keep a link) showing that removing the apex species is trouble.

  5. Steve, my point is that whether useful in principle or in practice, the strategy is obsolescent. In accelerating climate change you cannot protect species by protecting remnant habitat. If the species can't migrate across its landscape, however fragmented it may be in reality, that species is going the way of the dodo.

  6. @ Steve

    Dan, IIRC there was a very recent paper (sorry, didn’t keep a link) showing that removing the apex species is trouble.

    In aquatic environment removing the apex predator does tend to have large effects that can potentially lead to a trophic cascade. In terrestrial ecosystems, which top down population control is less common, this happens much less often.

    I am not saying that apex predators have no effect on their ecosystems, only that removing them typically doesn't lead to a very large change.

    For example the loss of Wolves from an ecosystem would have a much smaller effect than the loss of mycorrhiza.

    And yes there are bound to be many exceptions.

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