What Makes a Species “Native”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 6, 2011 4

Nature travelers—of all kinds—have been passing through Denali National Park for eons.

Denali National Park and Preserve, established in 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park, is known the world over for its stunning scenery, wild and remote frontier regions, and Denali—at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America. The park is a favorite tourist destination, as evidenced by the roughly 400,000 intrepid travelers who journey there each year.

We humans are not the only nature travelers, however, who have been passing through Denali National Park for generations. It’s estimated that 167 species of birds representing six continents visit the 6,028,203-acre park at one time or another over the course of a year. But now, new evidence suggests the birds have been doing it a lot longer than we Homo sapiens (a mere 200,000 years old) have. They’ve been flying there for millions of years—at least 70 million of them, or more.

Favorite avian vacation destination

It wouldn’t be summer in Wisconsin without sandhill cranes. ©John T. Andrews

The evidence supporting the long use of the region that is now Denali National Park as a favorite visitation site by birds came from Dr. Anthony Fiorillo, a paleontologist and curator for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. His findings were reported in his academic paper titled Bird tracks from the Upper Cretaceous Cantwell Formation of Denali National Park, Alaska, USA: a new perspective on ancient northern polar vertebrate biodiversity, which was published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology in January 2011. From 2006 to 2010, Dr. Fiorillo led digs in Denali. He and his teams were surprised when they unearthed bird tracks dating back 70 million years. And while many of the tracks were from bird species already known to science, two were made by birds slightly different from the rest.

Fiorillo named these two, new bird species Magnoavipes denaliensis (honoring the native Koyukon Athabascan name for the region) and Gruipeda vegrandiunis (meaning “tiny one”). His discoveries are significant for two reasons: first, because similar tracks have shown up across the United States and Asia, there’s a good chance that prehistoric birds used Alaska as a seasonal nesting ground, just as modern birds do today. Second, his findings add to the proof that Alaska was once “home” to an impressive range of bird species.

Native lands

It’s the use of the word “home” in this instance that makes me stop to wonder how we nature travelers—human and nonhuman, alike—should use the word when discussing “native” species. Often, when writing about the animals in my home state, I struggle with whether the birds who pass through Wisconsin year after year, decade after decade, millennium after millennium, should be considered “natives,” if they don’t stay here year-round.

Sandhill cranes use Wisconsin as a stopover on their ways north and south. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

For example, Canada geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes and whooping cranes—to name just a few of the bird species—use Wisconsin as a stopover on their ways north and south and east and west. Located on the Mississippi Flyway, my state’s skies can be very busy at times. The comings and goings of these migratory birds seem to define the seasons for those of us who live here; in fact, without seeing the first, single robin in our own backyards of March, the tens of sandhill cranes in the farmers’ fields of July, or the hundreds of thousands of Canada geese in the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge of October, it just wouldn’t be spring or summer or fall here.

But while these birds seem to be a huge part of the natural world for us, are they “natives”? Is Wisconsin their “home”?

I, too, have traveled to places I’ve liked more than once; I even visited Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, three times. And I have to say I’ve begun to feel a sense of familiarity when I’m there; I feel “at home.” But if the tundra birds that have seen me passing through could be put in my shoes, would they regard me as a native?

For a nature traveler, then, does the definition of “native species” relate to the place where you nest, or to the one that lives within your heart—the place you return to, year after year?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Ellen Girardeau Kempler September 7, 2011 at 10:23 am - Reply

    native = uniquely adapted to the climate (or microclimate) where the species first naturalized

    Here in So. California, that means dormant in the dry summer, growing in the wet(iish) winter.

  2. Krown Tree Hugger September 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    A ‘native’ seems to indicate they call a place home, not just stopping by. While a migratory species may occupy a place in the local ecosystem, it is still temporary. The same animal is not going to be present for very long. It is on its way to its winter or summer home. By that definition, an animal may have two ‘native’ habitats – summer and winter.

    More interesting is the notion of an invasive species. Whether it travels to another place, or is transplanted via some sort of carrying organism, would it be ‘native’ if it has now taken up residence? How long must it occupy that habitat before it is no longer invasive but native? A year? A decade? A millenium?

  3. NineQuietLessons September 6, 2011 at 10:56 am - Reply

    To me, it seems that the best definition of a native species is one that occupies a defined niche in the local ecosystem. Migratory birds may not live in a single area year-round, but their migrations are part of the web of interactions that pertain in areas they regularly travel through.

  4. Allan Schildknecht September 6, 2011 at 10:53 am - Reply

    Good point! What is native and what is adaptive?

    My interpretation of native is anything that adapted to the area prior to human discovery of that area.

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