What's wrong with novel ecosystems, really?

James R. Miller, Brandon T. Bestelmeyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The novel ecosystems concept has gained much traction in the restoration community. It has also drawn the ire of several prominent ecologists and is the focus of an ongoing debate. We consider three key aspects of this debate: irreversible thresholds, non-native species, and the hybrid state. Irreversible thresholds have been acknowledged in restoration for years, but predicting when a threshold will be crossed and the degree of reversibility is problematic. Oftentimes reversibility is a function of multiple factors, such as cost and public support. In this sense, a novel ecosystem is not an alternate state but a decision. The need for pragmatism regarding control of non-natives has also long been recognized in restoration circles. Proponents of the novel ecosystem idea adopt this pragmatism by recommending that management decisions be based on impacts conferred by species in altered ecosystems, regardless of their origin. The concept of a hybrid state has proven difficult to operationalize. We suggest that rather than trying to identify the boundary between hybrid and novel states, ecosystems exist on a gradient of alteration. We offer a decision tree for restoration action that integrates aspects of novel ecosystems with other perspectives in modern restoration ecology. We conclude that the idea of novel ecosystems, though not perfect, deserves a place under the “big tent” of restoration that includes efforts to return fully to a reference state, as well as strategies for reinstating lost ecological processes and enhancing ecosystem services in transformed landscapes where such a return is deemed infeasible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)577-582
Number of pages6
JournalRestoration Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • decision tree
  • hybrid ecosystem
  • non-native species
  • regime shift
  • threshold

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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