When Worlds Collide

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It pits our desire to prevent extinctions against deep-rooted values of preserving ecosystems in their native state. And it involves a level of human meddling that some have called hubris. But the big picture is more complicated than that. If predictions are right, then climate change over the next years will make anything that a few wayward naturalists do look tame. It will melt away biological communities that we know today, shuffling the deck of surviving species into new ecosystems. When we contemplate the impacts of climate change, we tend to think of extinctions and die-offs. But would we be better prepared if we thought more in terms of new arrivals and turnover?

The naysayers offer plenty of objections. For one, transplantation can turn the meekest bunny into a marauding invader. But move it, and it spreads. Across the southern hemisphere—in Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa—the Monterey pine has escaped lumber plantations and steamrolled its way up and down the coasts. From New York to Wisconsin, colonies of black locust are pushing aside native plants—in some cases, rare endemic communities.

An upcoming paper by Schwartz and two colleagues will address these issues in Conservation Biology. Invasion is but one threat, yet maybe not even the worst.

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Primack points to the example of Minot Pratt, a close friend of Henry David Thoreau who once prowled the woods around Concord, Massachusetts. Pratt liked to garden with nature. Throughout the s, he worked to introduce new plants into the Concord area that he felt would grow there, based on his own observations. Although he planted over 60 species, the newcomers never took hold. But human-assisted migration could turn haywire in plenty of other ways, too.

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Guy Midgley, an ecologist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town, personally shrinks from the idea, even though it could possibly save some of his pet species. Midgley studies the Cape Floristic Province, an area of low coastal mountains that hosts 6, endemic species, including species of protea, a flowering plant. Many protea seeds are dispersed by ants—meaning they move just a few meters per generation. As little as one kilometer of rolling sandstone hills separate communities of entirely different species.

And there, within this hotbed of biodiversity, lies the problem. Given their recent evolutionary separation, protea species readily interbreed—which worries Midgley. What happens if you evolve a new hybrid species that eliminates the parent species you were trying to save?

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He assumed that as glaciers expanded and retreated over the eons, species had shuffled north and south en masse, as intact communities. But Darwin could not have been more wrong. Studies of pollen, seeds, and other fossils from the last glacial retreat 10, to 17, years ago regularly show species living in odd combinations. Fourteen thousand years ago, mixed forests of spruce, oak, ash, and hophornbeam dominated much of the land from Minnesota to Ohio to Tennessee.

Paleoecologists call these odd combinations no-analog communities; nothing like them exists in the present world. Two species that lived side by side in the same ecosystem for eons often reacted differently to climate change.

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One species might creep uphill or up-globe, while the other persisted in the same place, even as other tree species in the same forest canopy faded to brown. A team lead by A. Townsend Peterson at the University of Kansas in Lawrence has modeled the likely movements of 1, species of birds, mammals, and insects across Mexico, based on projected climate change for the year Their model, published in Nature , predicts that species turnover due to local die-offs and new arrivals will exceed 40 percent in many places. Of course, predictions are just that.

But in some places, the tilt toward an age of no analogs may have already begun. The region suffered from drought in the s and again starting several years ago. Grasses—already reduced by grazing—also died. The impact has been profound. The prospective view could be a leap into the unknown. No one can say which species those might be. The no-analog scenario also invites a different view of the black locust invasions in New York. Black locust generally invades pine barren areas populated by scrub oaks, herbs, and grasses—many of them rare, endemic species.

As an avid nitrogen-fixer, black locust enriches the nutrient-poor soils in those communities—setting the stage for other outsiders, such as honeysuckle, to move in even after the trees are gone. Regardless of how they got there, those nitrogen-spewing trees are growing exactly where climate models predict they will thrive in years.

So even without human interference, they might have gotten there anyway.

That has ecologists thinking along different lines. His NGO and others are working to design nature reserves that will accommodate the natural movement of species as they respond to climate. The World Wildlife Foundation has pursued a similar strategy with its coastal marine reserves in East Africa, working to establish a series of stepping-stone reserves that will help species to hop poleward in small increments.

And in the Cape Floristic Province of South Africa, several migration corridors including the Cederberg Mega-Reserve are being established to connect mountains with coastlines. The challenge is to predict where and how quickly species will actually move. Their models incorporate not only changes in climate but also modes of seed dispersal—ant versus wind—for each species. Their results could help prioritize what other land should be set aside to protect the largest number of species.

When Worlds Collide by Exhale. John Chaos Alexander.

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