Piranhas in the Chicago River: Ecologist Reuben Keller Knows That Caring for the Planet Reguires Thinking beyond the Environmental Sciences

By Keller, Reuben | U.S. Catholic, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Piranhas in the Chicago River: Ecologist Reuben Keller Knows That Caring for the Planet Reguires Thinking beyond the Environmental Sciences


Keller, Reuben, U.S. Catholic


Trek up to Reuben Keller's Chicago office, and you'll likely catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan on your way. Actually, you can nearly see it from his desk. It's a fitting location for Keller, a freshwater ecologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Environmental Sustainability.

But this institute isn't just for scientists, and Keller--who talks just as passionately about statistics and economics as he does about the rapid evolution of a snake species--prefers it this way. Keller studies the relationship between living things and the environments in which they live, and most of his career has focused on the environmental impact of invasive species. In order to make effective environmental policy changes, however, Keller realized he also needs to focus on the economics and politics of globalized ecosystems.

"The broadening of what I was interested in came from my experience of being an ecologist, coming up with ecological models, and thinking I'd answered everything, that everyone would change their policy because I told them so," he says. "Of course, barely anyone reads my papers, let alone does what I tell them to."

So, he changed his approach. In 2011, he organized a conference of experts in a wide range of fields-- economists, engineers, and legal scholars among them--to discuss invasive species. Keller and two collaborators even published Invasive Species in a Globalized World (University of Chicago Press), a collection of papers and essays based on the conference.

"As an ecologist, I have an important role in reaching the solution, but it's a very small role," he says. "We're all part of the solution."

What are invasive species?

An invasive species is a nonnative species that is established and breeding and causing harm. Different people have slightly different definitions, but that's the most common one. Basically, it's a nonnative species that we wish would go away because it's causing some sort of measurable harm.

Nonnative species can be quite benign, though. Most of the species that become established, we don't really know what they do. That's probably partly because there aren't enough ecologists to study them all. It's also partly because they fit into their community and exist in small numbers. They don't cause really big problems. The really bad ones are the ones we are most concerned about. Things like the zebra mussel, Asian carp, kudzu--things like that. These are the ones ecologists get most energized about.

How do species become invasive?

So, we see a lot of alligators and piranhas get caught from the Chicago River. It's not that infrequent. The only explanation for this is that people buy these organisms for their personal use. And when they get too big, the owner has to get rid of them.

Many believe the most humane thing to do is release them. So that's what they do. With alligators and piranhas, you don't need to worry about them. They'll never survive out there through the winter, but they're good examples of species that couldn't have come from anywhere else. There's no way an alligator just accidentally came up the Mississippi River.

We've created this invasive species problem because we've basically globalized the world. We've done it economically: We can buy whatever we want from China or Malaysia or Western Europe, and it can be delivered in three days.

What that has also done is globalize our ecosystems. Our ecosystems are now connected to other ecosystems around the world that they could never have conceivably been connected to in the absence of humans establishing this trade and travel.

How have we contributed to the problem?

We've sort of connected all of these ecosystems that have been evolutionarily distinct. It's just inconceivable that they would have been connected otherwise. And we have so many different ways of doing this. …

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