Why we can – and MUST – create new Adaptive Ecologies

Exotic invasive flora and fauna are adaptors of new ecologies

This article was written in 2013 and updated in April 2019.


I’ve written before on the subject of adaptive landscapes and trans-migrational landscapes but I’ve been reading recently of a real-life ecology that was created by man in the last 150 years, and is thriving.  This is on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a once barren volcanic rock, which now has a thriving cloud forest on green Mountain, created by Sir Joseph Hooker the famous botanist.  He was inspired by Darwin’s comments that someone should try engineering a new environment on the island.  As a result, where there were once just 25 species, there are now over 200, as this article  and this article tells.  There is also a BBC Costing the Earth program worth listening to.

Conservationists dislike what has happened here and say the novel ecology is incomplete and uncomplex, but it’s kick-tarted a transformation and now work is being done to refine and develop the work.    Hooker planted trees near the summit to trap moisture and create a source of water for the navel personnel stationed there.  Many species failed but those that adapted went on to form a fully fledged cloud forest which  produces huge amounts of water.  One thing of note is that some of the 15 or so endemic ferns are now growing as epiphytes on the moss-laden branches.

Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns

Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns.  photo Fred Pearce.

Whilst this example may be a one-off, it is nonetheless a hopeful sign. If new and thriving ecologies can be created with little scientific thought, it gives hope for what we can do if we put our minds to it.  I always maintain that nature is an opportunist and will try anything anywhere.  that would seem to be the case here.

In my previous articles mentioned above, I outlined the reasons why this is necessary. To recap, it is due to the planetary changes that are now occurring, whose effects we have yet to fully experience, which is going to change this planet for millennia to come, even if we get a grip on carbon emissions, which we must do. If we don’t, runaway climate change could make this planet largely uninhabitable (at least to higher life forms). Ecologists and particularly conservationists have to radically re-think what they consider to be “natural” ecology, for Nature cannot adapt the landscape at the rate of our man-induced changes. That means that species cannot adapt and move with the shifting region of climate zone they are used to. These zones are moving North and South, away from the equator at a rate which may change 20% of the world’s climate zones by the end of the century.

Of course, Nature will correct things given time, but mankind cannot afford to wait, if it wants a planet worth living on – and the ability to live on it. That’s why the Ascension Island story is such good news.  I would dare bet that we could extensively re-vegetate (or terraform, to use a word found in science fiction stories) areas within a 50 year period if we turned our minds to it, and our political will.  I understand the island is being studied with an eye on how to terraform Mars, although adapting our existing planet might be more relevant.

Ironically, I can see some of the stiffest opposition to this coming from conservationists. Much is made of the negative effects of the global migration of plants and insects, but we have to balance that with the positive gains, which are seldom mentioned, yet so taken for granted.  And the planet is going to change now, whether we want it to or not.  I’d rather the UK (for example) had a more Mediterranean flora and fauna (although adapted to cope with heavy periods of rain and flood) than none at all.  We may one day grieve the loss of our native oaks, finally unable to cope with the higher temperatures, but we would surely welcome the holm oak (already naturalising in the South coast area), cork oak and olive here. Having an ecology of beauty and abundance is what counts, not preserving what we used to have, which is merely a snapshot in time.  Get used to that; it’s already too late to prevent change.

But new adaptive ecologies, created by transferring plants, insects and microbes from other similar zones in the world, would give us a new practice, that of trans-migrating landscapes, and a new science, a new understanding.  In this we must learn not to manipulate, but to understand Nature, to assist in what she would herself do, but over millennia.  And we must do it within a lifetime.

To cope with this, we need a New Horticulture profession, one balanced with science and ecology, not just focused on the ornamental.

Best we get started…

August 28th, 2013 by