How the iPhone acts like an Invasive Species

The iPhone changed the world since it’s release in 2007. It showed a demand for smartphones that changed the cell phone industry. When invasive species come into a new environment they change ecosystems similarly.

Ecosystem Engineer

In ecology, a species that changes their environment is called an ecosystem engineer. Wikipedia defines it as an organism that creates, destroys, or modifies a habitat. Humans are ecosystem engineers because we alter the environment to make ourselves more conformable. A specific example of humans altering the environment is acid rain from sulfur dioxide released by burning coal. Beavers are normally the first natural ecosystem engineers people point to. They build dams so they can leave in them. The dam slows the water, allowing other species to live there too.


One ecosystem engineer is Phragmites australisPhragmites is an invasive plant in North America. It is found in wetlands. Often Phragmites crowds out native species, decreasing the ecosystem’s diversity. It’s no wonder that many people want to find the best way to remove it and prevent it from coming back. A research team lead by Dr. Stuart Fidlay set out to do that. They removed Phragmites from an area of land and recorded what came back. After a few years, native plants came back, but not to the level they were before Phragmites came.

Phragmites australis in a wetland

Phragmites australis Photo by User: Darkone on Wikipedia

So, what happened? Phragmites changes how nitrogen is cycled in the environment. Nitrogen is a critical nutrient for all life on earth. Living things need it for building blocks of protein. We get nitrogen from food. Plants get nitrogen from bacteria or from the soil. When Phragmites changed how nitrogen is cycled in the environment, it reduced the amount of nitrogen for competing plants. Phragmites puts oxygen into the underwater soil. Bacteria then live in the soil and take up nitrogen. When Phragmites is removed it no longer puts oxygen into the soil and the bacteria die. The nitrogen the bacteria took while living is then naturally converted into an unused form of nitrogen that plants can not get. This causes an overall loss in nitrogen for the ecosystem whenPhragmites is removed. Phragmites is so good at being an ecosystem engineer that can be used to improve coastline environments if you’re able to prevent it from getting out of hand.


Photo from Takuya Murata found on Wikipedia


Ok, so how does this relate to the iPhone? Well, the answer is in the numbers. J. Laugesen and Y. Yaun looked at data after the iPhone was launched. They say that the iPhone was the most successful mobile phone product ever launched. It differentiated itself by having minimal buttons, applications, and an internet browser. At the time AT&T was the sole provider of the iPhone. AT&T saw a 3% increase in market share. AT&T’s churn rate also fell, meaning that customers stayed with the service longer. The iPhone also paved the way for other smartphones by creating a demand for smartphones and for data plans. This added to products AT&T could sell. In ecology, the iPhone would be an ecosystem engineer. The iPhone changed how customers were buying mobile service, changing its environment. The iPhone is an invasive species because they both change how resources flow through an ecosystem. For the iPhone, it changed how customers bought phones and phone service. For Phragmites, it changed how oxygen and nitrogen get to other plants.

Wait a minute, Phragmites was removed from its new environment and that’s when they discovered that it was an ecosystem engineer, what about the iPhone? The same might be true for the iPhone. If the iPhone went away there might be major changes to how we buy mobile service, however, I doubt anyone is going to call the iPhone an invasive species.

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Check out more of my articles about Ecology

Work Cited:

Wikipedia definition of Ecosystem engineer

S. Fidelay, P. Groffman, and S. Dye. 2003. Effects of Phragmites australis removal on marsh nutrient cycling. Wetlands Ecology and Management. Vol. 11. Pg. 157-165

C. Hershner and K. J. Havens. 2008. Managing Invasive Aquatic Plants in a Changing System: Strategic Consideration of Ecosystem Services. Conservation Biology. Vol. 22. Iss. 3. Pg. 544-550

J. Laugersen and Y. Yuan. 2010. What factors contributed to the success of Apples’ iPhone? (PDF) Mobile Business and 2010 Ninth Global Mobility Roundtable (ICMB-GMR). Pg. 91-99