Assisted migration- ecosystem protection versus unintended consequences

This morning, just a quick post to highlight some of the work being done over at the Early Career Ecologists blog.  I found their recent entry on assisted migration fascinating:

http://earlycareerecologists.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/trees-on-the-move-debating-assisted-migration-in-climate-change-mitigation/

The idea is simple- if climate in many places is (or will soon be) changing faster than the local long-lived plant species can migrate, it might become necessary for humans to physically relocate them in order to preserve individual species and/or overall ecosystem function.  However, this is only possible to the extent that researchers understand precisely how climate is changing and what factors determine species range; haphazard relocation could encourage the proliferation of invasive species and the disruption of native communities.

This whole discussion is very reminiscent of that surrounding geo-engineering (e.g. here and here):  we know that humans are disrupting natural systems at an alarming rate, but do we know enough to try and modify those systems even further to mitigate the damage?  Is it prudent to pursue such techniques as a worst-case-scenario fallback option, or are such efforts a waste of scarce resources, or (worse) an excuse to avoid the fundamentally hard work of greenhouse gas emissions reduction?  What do you think?

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2 Responses to Assisted migration- ecosystem protection versus unintended consequences

  1. Carolyn Hoagland says:

    I’ll be interested to hear more about this project. In order to survive, young plants will have to find their microbial symbionts (which may not exist) in their new location. Also, it is not uncommon for older trees in established forests to transfer fixed carbon to young trees (mostly of the same species) through micorrhizal networks. Actually we don’t know if the trees do this, or the micorrhiza do this regardless of what promotes fitness for the trees. Anyway, it’s complicated and efforts to transfer soil microbes to new locations often fail – they are often out competed by the natives. In short, I see I see trees as an emergent feature of an ecosystem (like a beard on a man). Maybe you could surgically transplant the follicles onto a woman’s face, but establishing it and maintaining it will mean thwarting her natural immune response until her gender changes.

    • John says:

      Very interesting point Carolyn! Presumably, you’re bringing a little soil with you when you transplant, so maybe there’s at least an inoculation of the microbes your plant is used to at the new site. Whether or not they thrive from there… perhaps is dictated by a similar set of factors as for the plant itself?

      As an aside, are you very familiar with mycorrhizal inoculation? It comes up periodically in the context of biochar… I hear some people promoting it as a way to bump productivity, but others worrying about the potential for invasive non-native micro-fauna…

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