July 18, 2008

Can We Save Species By Moving Them?

In the wake of new reports on the dangers of global climate change, many scientists are beginning to believe that the only hope for saving certain plants and animals may be to move them in what is referred to as assisted colonization or migration.

"When I first brought up this idea some 10 years ago in conservation meetings, most people were horrified," said Camille Parmesan, a biology professor at the University of Texas.

"But now, as the reality of global warming sinks in, and species are already becoming endangered and even going extinct because of climate change, I'm seeing a new willingness in the conservation community to at least talk about the possibility of helping out species by moving them around," she said. Parmesan discusses the idea in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

Parmesan acknowledged that the thought of having to force animals from their natural habitats may irk many conservation biologists. There are several risks involved with the process. They may become invasive, growing wildly without predators and crowding out natives of their new location, or more importantly "“ they may not survive.

Additionally, the relocation process won't work to save every species that may need it, so how to decide who gets moved and who gets left behind to become extinct?

Stanford biologist Terry Root has been traveling the country urging her colleagues to come up with a plan for "triage" to decide which species should be saved from global warming and which can't. After other biologists complained about the word "triage," Root said she now calls it prioritizing which species should be saved.

"We've got to work on the ones we have a prayer of saving," Root said.

Root said that some species would have to be taken off of the list of consideration right away, such as threatened and endangered species of the Sky Islands in Arizona and New Mexico because "they don't have any place to move to."

"Those species are functionally extinct right now," Root said. "They're toast."

Root says the key to determining which ones can be saved is uniqueness. That's why she said she'd save the odd-looking Tuatara of New Zealand, a lizard-like creature with almost no living relatives, over the common sparrow.

"Ultimately, the decision about whether to actively assist the movement of a species into new territories will rest on ethical and aesthetic grounds as much as on hard science," she said in a statement.

"Passively assisting coral reef migration may be acceptable, but transplanting polar bears to Antarctica, where they would likely drive native penguins to extinction, would not be acceptable," she said.

"Conservation has never been an exact science, but preserving biodiversity in the face of climate change is likely to require a fundamental rethinking of what it means to preserve biodiversity," Parmesan said.


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