Patricia Ballamingie is a professor at Carleton University, cross-appointed in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and the Institute of Political Economy. Her research focuses on food policy and food systems governance.
The American Bullfrog: Economic savior to monster to miracle cure
To understand the social construction of nature—a concept political ecologists Noel Castree and Bruce Braun shortened to just “social nature”—consider the myriad ways that humans have, over time, framed the American bullfrog.
In the 1930s, entrepreneurs introduced the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) to western North America to farm them for frog legs—a delicacy in French cuisine—portraying the species as an economic savior. Over time, the American bullfrog reached mythic proportions in the West—in terms of its size, prevalence, and impact on local ecosystems. Journalists characterized this species as a “monster”—a voracious predator that could grow to the size of a dinner plate, consume a duckling whole, and drag a small cat into a pond.
As an “invasive alien species,” the American bullfrog preyed on native frog species, dominated local ecosystems, and ultimately, threw them out of balance. A politician from Delta, British Columbia described the American bullfrog as a “fast-breeding carnivorous frog” (Georgia Strait, 2008) that thrived despite human development. In wet conditions, it can migrate to extend its territorial range, travelling more than a kilometer in a single night. Ecologists understood this invasive “bully” as an ecosystem introduction gone awry (CKISS, 2021).
Fast forward to the mid-2000s, when scientists at St. Andrews University touted the American bullfrog as a potential “miracle cure” to the MRSA bacterium—a superbug blighting hospital wards (Moss, 2007). Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia used the American bullfrog to perfect breeding techniques to re-establish the native frogs that, ironically, the American bullfrog helped push to the brink of extinction. In both these cases, scientists framed the species for its utility in solving other problems.
Portrayals of species can be made and re-made in multiple, competing, and widely varying ways. Like the bullfrog, other species (such as sharks and milkweed) oscillate in our cultural imagination between good and evil. Producers of the 1978 film Jaws characterized Great White Sharks as terrifying apex predators, while Rob Stewart, filmmaker of the 2007 Sharkwater, portrayed sharks as critical to marine ecosystems and worthy of protection. For decades, gardeners viewed milkweed as an invasive, noxious weed, while more recently, ecologists have stressed its important role as host plant for the endangered Monarch butterfly.
Humans ascribe meaning to everything—through language, imagery, and characterization—making it impossible to discuss anything without acknowledging this process of social construction.
- The concept of social nature is demonstrated above using the example of the American bullfrog. What are some other examples that we humans make and re-make—or socially construct—through language, imagery and characterization?
- How would you explain the concept of social nature to someone else?
- Can you elaborate on why this concept might be significant?
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Moss, L. (2007, May 1). Could a bullfrog hold the answer to MRSA? http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=303&id=669512007