A Conversation With Dr. Craig Stanford

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The USC professor’s new book takes an up-close look at the Southern California ecosystem, the native and non-native species that depend on it, and what we can do to support its health and restoration.

In his work as an evolutionary biologist, Dr. Craig Stanford has traveled around the world studying the ecology and social behavior of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and other wild great apes. He’s also done significant research on the conservation biology of reptiles, especially critically endangered tortoises and turtles. 

But for his latest book, Stanford turned his focus to his own backyard. In Unnatural Habitat: The Native and Exotic Wildlife of Los Angeles, the USC professor, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from U.C. Berkeley, examines the native and non-native plants, trees, birds, insects, and animals that surround us in Southern California.

“The Los Angeles basin is a jigsaw puzzle of an ecosystem, with ever new forms of plant and animal interactions that deserve our attention,” Stanford writes in the book’s introduction. “That word interaction is all-important. In a natural ecosystem, nearly every component is interlocked with other components. Pull one out and some aspect of the ecosystem may collapse. In our anthropogenic Southern California ecosystem, where the plants and animals didn’t necessarily evolve with each other and many weren’t even meant to live in this climate, that’s not the case.”

Bluedot Living L.A. editor Robin Jones spoke with Stanford about his research for the book, the discoveries he made about the L.A. ecosystem, and what Angelenos can do to help protect what’s left and restore what’s been lost.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Robin Jones: When did you start to study the ecosystem in Southern California, and why?

Craig Stanford: I picked the worst year to have a sabbatical — the spring of 2020 — and I had to cancel five or six international trips. I had just bought a new house in Altadena, so I spent a couple of months getting settled and catching up on work. But then I had nothing to do. I had always wanted to write this book, so I sat down and started to write it.

I wanted to look at what we think of as ecosystems in L.A. Are they really functioning, or do they just give the veneer of it? The answer is the latter. There’s a weird mix of animals that belong here and animals that don’t belong here, and I wrote about the interaction between those things.

RJ: What exactly is the natural Southern California landscape?

CS: I live on the edge of a canyon, which backs up to what is more or less the natural Southern California ecosystem. It’s a Mediterranean climate, with a lot of plants that try to just hang on in hot weather until the rains come. We have semi-arid, or chaparral, ecosystems that are highly seasonal. Here, July, August, and September are comparable to December, January, and February in colder climates — that’s when plants are just trying to survive.

RJ: How is the native SoCal landscape different from the one most of us live in now?

CS: Europeans who came to L.A. wanted to re-create their old environments in their new neighborhoods. It pulled the rug out from what should really be here and created what I think of as a “hollow ecosystem.” Many people don’t appreciate that the roses and tulips they see are completely alien and strange to the environment. Those types of plants don’t support the things we don’t see, like the little inconspicuous native bees that do the pollinating, which need native plants.

RJ: How did Southern California’s ecosystem become what it is now?

CS: Here’s an example: We have squirrels that are native to Southern California, but the only place to see them is in pine forests in the mountains. What we think of as our local squirrels were brought here from the Midwest by military veterans on trains, who had been living in VA hospitals and kept squirrels as pets. Once those squirrels got here, they spread like wildfire because they’re super aggressive. They became the dominant squirrel, but they don’t belong here. There are a lot of other examples like that of non-native animals that are invasive, and also destructive, and changed our ecosystem.

RJ: Are there any upsides to living alongside plants and animals that have been transplanted from around the world?

CS: For one thing, L.A. is the only city other than Mumbai where big cats live. We have to somehow coexist with them, so we do have an appreciation for them that other parts of the world couldn’t have. There’s an overpass going up for the mountain lions in L.A. [the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing] and it’s amazing – that’s $100 million spent on wildlife.

If even just one or two houses on every block planted a native garden, it would go a long way toward maintaining and preserving a healthy environment for native species. It wouldn’t take much, and it would produce a profound ecological change.

– Dr. Craig Stanford

RJ: Some native-plant evangelists in SoCal seem to think that native flora and fauna are good, and non-native are bad. What’s your take?

CS: That’s a simplistic view. I’m not religious about any of this stuff, and I don’t believe you have to have 100% native plants. Also, it depends on what you mean by native. Something that grows in Catalina might be sold in L.A. as native, but it’s not native to, say, the Hollywood Hills. 

RJ: You note that several native species are really struggling in today’s SoCal landscape. Which ones do you think are in the most trouble, and why?

CS: The species most in trouble are specialists, which need specific trees and plants to live. Monarch butterflies, for example, are in desperate, terrible trouble. Adult monarchs can take nectar from anything, but the larvae need milkweed. Without milkweed, there’s no habitat for the caterpillar, and then you don’t have monarchs. But the milkweed in Southern California has been destroyed by pesticides. If people planted a couple of milkweed plants, which are super hearty, in their yard, they would help provide habitat for monarchs. 

RJ: What can people do to support and protect other species that are struggling?

CS: I think if people were just open to putting in some native plants in a corner of their garden, that would be an amazing first step. The biggest nursery in my area now has a small native plant section, and if people buy them, they’ll stock more. Then insects and birds will follow. I recently read a story about a woman whose only outdoor space was a balcony, but she filled it with native plants, and soon the balcony was filled with butterflies and hummingbirds. I have hummingbirds all day in my yard. It’s like a little airport.

If even just one or two houses on every block planted a native garden, it would go a long way toward maintaining and preserving a healthy environment for native species. It wouldn’t take much, and it would produce a profound ecological change.

RJ: Your book has a few chapters on birds — exotic ones, native ones, raptors. What is their place in the ecosystem?

CS: A lot of songbirds need insects, especially when they have nests and babies. That’s the prey base they need to sustain their young. But those insects, that prey base, won’t be there if you don’t plant the types of plants that will support them. You wipe out the bottom level of the pyramid, and the next level doesn’t have anything to eat. The songbird population has dropped significantly, partly because of this, along with development and feral cats.

This is a great example of the difference between specialists and generalists. A generalist can cope with anything and can adapt to many different environments. Raptors are good examples of species that have adapted to our environment. When I first moved here, I couldn’t believe that you could see hawks and falcons from your car window on the freeway or on skyscrapers in downtown L.A. But specialists are disappearing. Future L.A. suburbia will have only generalists adapted to a range of environments.

RJ: Finally, let’s talk about palm trees. They may be the most enduring symbol of the region, but they’re not native, and you devote a whole chapter of your book to them. 

CS: They’re not exactly dangerous for our ecosystems, but they don’t belong. At the very least, they don’t contribute anything. They don’t create shade, and they block out other trees from growing. 

As palm trees fall, though, it’s exciting to see them being replaced by other trees like oaks. Oak trees are the most massive organisms in California by size and weight, and each one is a massive ecosystem onto itself. The number of animals, birds, insects, and plants that can and do make use of oak products is phenomenal. Oaks are also very drought-tolerant. They take a long time to mature, and if you plant one now, you won’t live to see it fully mature. But we should all plant one anyway. If everyone put in just one oak tree, it would make an incredible impact.

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Robin Jones
Robin Jones
Robin Jones is the editor of Bluedot Living Los Angeles and is a Southern California native who served as an editor at Westways magazine for more than a decade. She currently lives in Long Beach and teaches journalism at Cal State Long Beach, where she advises the award-winning student magazine, DIG MAG. She loves road-tripping across California, especially when the itinerary includes stops in Arcata and Trinidad.
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