Answering the Smithsonian – The Flawed Logic of Native Plant Activism

In its April 2020 issue, the Smithsonian Magazine published an interview with Doug Tallamy, considered one of the fathers – or at least popularizers – of nativism. They asked Art Shapiro, who represents a broader view of the ecological role of all species, to respond. Then they gave Tallamy space to rebut his responses, but they did not give Shapiro a further chance to rebut the rebuttal. The MillionTrees blog stepped up to respond. This article is re-published with permission.


Doug Tallamy speaks…Art Shapiro responds…Million Trees fills in the gaps

Smithsonian Magazine published an interview with Professor Doug Tallamy, the entomologist who is committed to the eradication of non-native plants and most influential with native plant advocates in the United States. The Smithsonian article gives Professor Art Shapiro an inadequate opportunity to respond to Tallamy’s assertions about the superiority of native plants. Million Trees steps up to fill in the gaps in response to Tallamy.

  • The Smithsonian article says, “As a scientist, Tallamy realized his initial obligation was to prove his insight empirically. He began with the essential first step of any scientific undertaking, by applying for research grants, the first of which took until 2005 to materialize. Then followed five years of work by relays of students.”

The first study that Tallamy conducted is not mentioned in this article because it disproved his hypothesis: “Erin [Reed] compared the amount of damage sucking and chewing insects made on the ornamental plants at six suburban properties landscaped primarily with species native to the area and six properties landscaped traditionally. After two years of measurements Erin found that only a tiny percentage of leaves were damaged on either set of properties at the end of the season….Erin’s most important result, however, was that there was no statistical difference in the amount of damage on either landscape type.” (1)

  • The Smithsonian article says, “… insects tend to be specialists, feeding on and pollinating a narrow spectrum of plant life, sometimes just a single species. ‘Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can develop and reproduce only on the plants with which they share an evolutionary history’…:”

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel. Courtesy

A “specialist” insect is rarely confined to using a single plant species. Mutually exclusive relationships in nature are very rare because they are usually evolutionary dead-ends. The study in which this claim about “specialization” originated, actually concluded: “More than 90 percent of all insects sampled associate with just one or two plant families.”* There are over 600 plant families and thousands of plant species within those families. Most plant families include both native and non-native plant species. An insect that uses one or two plant families, is therefore capable of using both native and non-native plant species. For example, there are 20,000 plant members of the Asteraceae family, including native sagebrush (Artemisia) and non-native African daisy. In other words, the insect that confines its diet to one family of plants is not very specialized.

  • The Smithsonian article says, But he [Tallamy] thinks this [transition of insects to non-native plants] is likely to take thousands of generations to have an impact on the food web. Shapiro maintains he has seen it occur within his own lifetime.”

There are many empirical studies that document the transition that insects make from native to non-native plants within generations. Professor Tallamy provides a few examples of such rapid transitions in his first book, Bringing Nature Home: wooly adelgids from Asia have had a devastating effect on native hemlock forests in the eastern United States; Japanese beetles introduced to the United States are eating the foliage of over 400 plant species (according to Professor Tallamy), some of which are native (according to the USDA invasive species website).

Soapberry bug on balloon vine. Scott Carroll, UC Davis

The soapberry bug made a transition from a native plant in the soapberry family in less than 100 generations over a period of 20 to 50 years. The soapberry bug-balloon vine story is especially instructive because it entailed very rapid morphological as well as behavioral change; the beak length was quickly (a few years) selected for the dimensions of the fruit of the new host. (2)

  • Doug Tallamy claims that Art Shapiro’s findings are “anecdotal.” They are not. Art Shapiro’s published study is based on nearly 40 years of data. (3)

Monachs in eucalyptus, Pacific Grove Museum

In a recent NY Times article about declining populations of monarch butterflies on the West Coast, an academic scientist explains how he used Professor Shapiro’s data set to study the decline: “The monarch’s decline is part of a larger trend among dozens of butterfly species in the West, including creatures with names like field crescents, large marbles and Nevada skippers, said Matt Forister, an insect ecologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, whose conclusions are based on a nearly 50-year set of data compiled by Art Shapiro, a researcher at the University of California, Davis. “The monarch is very clearly part of a larger decline of butterflies in the West.” Clearly, other academic entomologists do not consider Professor Shapiro’s data “anecdotal.”

The Burghardt/Tallamy study (4) does not contradict the findings of Professor Art Shapiro because Professor Shapiro is studying butterflies (not moths) in “natural areas” that have not been artificially created by choosing a limited number of plant species, as Tallamy’s study did. In other words, the adult and larvae stages of butterflies that Professor Shapiro studies have more options, and when they do they are as likely to choose a non-native plant as a native plant for both host plant and food plant. You might say, Professor Shapiro’s study occurs in the “real world” and the Burghardt/Tallamy study occurs in an artificially created world.

Dismissing observations as anecdotal is a well-worn rhetorical device. Creationists often claim that evolution cannot be proven because the theory is based on millions of observations, rather than empirically tested by experiments. Yet, virtually all scientists are firm believers in the validity of evolutionary principles.

  • Tallamy dismisses climate change as a factor in plant and animal extinctions, preferring to place the blame solely on the mere existence of non-native plants.

This claim is contradicted by a multitude of studies, such as a collection of studies recently reported by Yale E360 that concludes: “A growing number of studies show that warming temperatures are increasing mortality in creatures ranging from birds in the Mojave Desert, to mammals in Australia, to bumblebees in North America. Researchers warn that heat stress could become a major factor in future extinctions.”

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time. When the climate changes, the vegetation changes. When the vegetation changes, wildlife adapts or dies. Non-native plants are one of the consequences, not the cause of climate change or plant and animal extinctions.


*Professor Shapiro has provided a caveat to this definition of specialization of insects in a private communication, published with his permission: A couple of observations: Hardly any insects feed on entire plant families. Rather, they feed on specific lineages within those families, typically defined by secondary chemistry (which is the necessary releaser for oviposition and/or feeding behavior). The relationship was summed up symbolically by A.J.Thorsteinson half a century ago: feeding=presence of nutrients+presence of required secondary chemicals-deterrents-antifeedants-toxins. Thus the Anise Swallowtail species-group feeds on the carrot family, Apiaceae, but NOT on Apiaceae lacking the proper chemistry.But they DO feed on some Rutaceae (including Citrus) that, though unrelated, are chemically similar. That was worked out by Vincent Dethier in the 1940s and further developed by John Thompson at UC Santa Cruz. A whole slew of things require iridoid glycosides as oviposition and feeding stimulants. Most plants containing these were in the family Scrophulariaceae before DNA systematics led to its dismemberment, but one whole branch of Scrophs is chemically unsuitable. Milkweed bugs eat milkweed, but they also eat the Brassicaceous genera Erysimum and Cheiranthus, which are chemically similar to milkweeds but not to other Brassicaceae…and so on. Native vs. non-native has nothing to do with it.(emphasis added)

  1. Tallamy, Doug, “Flipping the Paradigm: Landscapes that Welcome Wildlife,” chapter in Christopher, Thomas, The New American Landscape, Timber Press, 2011
  2. Carroll, Scott P., et. al., “Genetic architecture of adaptive differentiation in evolving host races of the soapberry bug, Jadera haematoloma,” Genetica, 112-113: 257-272, 2001
  3. SD Graves and AM Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation, 110 (2003) 413-433
  4. Karin Burghardt, Doug Tallamy, et. al., “Non-native plants reduce abundance, richness, and host specialization in lepidopteran communities,” Ecosphere,November 2010
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