Social Nature

Patricia Ballamingie

Social nature refers to the social lens through which nature is interpreted and thus constructed—through language, imagery, and characterization.

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.

 

Drawing of an American bullfrog with a duckling’s feet sticking out of its mouth
Figure 1: Drawing of an American bullfrog with a duckling’s feet sticking out of its mouth.

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.

 

Discussion Questions

  • 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?

Additional Resources

Amphibiaweb. (2006, June 15). Worldwide amphibian declines: How big is the problem, what are the causes and what can be done? Berkeley: Regents of the University of California. http://amphibiaweb.org/declines/declines.html

Bohme, W. (2000). When does a foreign species deserve a “permit of residence”?  Non-indigenous species (NIS): examples of varying exoticness and varying immigration age, taken from herpetology. Ethology, Ecology and Evolution, 12: 326-328. Florence: Firenze University Press.

Braun, B. and N. Castree (eds.). (1998). Remaking reality: Nature at the millennium. London: Routledge.

Castree, N. and B. Braun (eds.). (2001). Social nature: Theory, practice, and politics. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

CBC News. (2005, February 21). Biologist sounds battle cry against unwelcome amphibian. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/biologist-sounds-battle-cry-against-unwelcome-amphibian-1.560218

CBC Newsworld. (2001, August 15). American bullfrogs hungry for ducklings and cats. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/american-bullfrogs-hungry-for-ducklings-and-cats-1.259088

Coates, P.A. (2007). American perceptions of immigrant and invasive species: Strangers on the land. University of California Press.

C. Rankin & Associates et al. (2004, May). Invasive alien species framework for BC: Identifying and addressing threats to biodiversity.  Biodiversity Branch, Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection. http://www.llbc.leg.bc.ca/public/PubDocs/bcdocs/375452/framework_BC_0205.pdf

Ficetola, G.F. et al. (2006). Pattern of distribution of the American bullfrog Rana Catesbiana in Europe. Biological Invasions. Springer. http://www-leca.ujf-grenoble.fr/membres/fichiersPdf/miaud/miaudATT00009.pdf

Garner, T.W.J., M.W. Perkins, P. Govindarajulu, D. Seglie, S. Walker, A.A. Cunningham, and M.C. Fisher. (2006, September 22). The emerging amphibian pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis globally infects introduced populations of the North American bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana. Biology Letters, 2 (3): 455-459.

Gidney, N. (2004, November 24). Spring assault planned on bullfrogs. Times Colonist. http://www.canada.com/victoria/soundoff/story.html?id=ad34c33a-1d0b-4d1b-95b1-71d82607b541

Govindarajulu, P., W.M.S. Price, and B.R. Anholt (2006, June). Introduced Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) in Western Canada: Has their ecology diverged?’ Journal of Herpetology, 40 (2): 249-260.

Graham, S. and P.J. Coote. (2007). Potent, synergistic inhibition of Staphylococcus aureus upon exposure to a combination of the endopeptidase lysostaphin and the cationic peptide ranalexin. The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lannoo, M. (ed.) (2005). ‘Rana catesbeiana: American Bullfrog’ in Amphibian Declines: The Conservation Status of United States Species. University of California Press.

National Geographic. (2007, June 21). Bullfrogs eat everything. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRlxldV_fT0&feature=fvw

Paulson, S. and L.L. Gezon (eds.). (2005). Political ecology across spaces, scales and social groups.  London: Rutgers University Press.

Peet, R. and M. Watts (eds.). (1996). Liberation ecologies: Environment, development, social movements. London: Routledge.

Perez, J.E, C. Alfonsi, M. Nirichio, et al. (2006, July). The inbreeding paradox in invasive species (La paradoja de la consanguinidad en especies invasivas). INCI, 31 (7): 544-546.

Smith, M. A. and D. M. Green. (2005). Dispersal and metapopulation paradigm in amphibian ecology and conservation: Are all amphibian populations metapopulations? Ecography, 28: 110 –128.

References

Central Kootenay Invasive Species Society (CKISS). (2021, January 23). The History of American Bullfrog Control in the Central Kootenays. https://ckiss.ca/2021/01/the-history-of-american-bullfrog-control-in-the-central-kootenays/

Georgia Strait. (2008, March 27). Giant carnivorous frogs still a threat to Vancouver. https://www.straight.com/article-139045/media-notices-explosion-bullfrogs-after-explosion

Moss, L. (2007, May 1). Could a bullfrog hold the answer to MRSA? http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=303&id=669512007

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Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.22215/stkt/bp02

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