Have Species, Will Travel: Reasonable or Reckless?


As the climate changes, so will the habitats of flora and fauna – changing far faster than natural adaptation can deal with. Mass extinctions are a very real threat. What to do?

One option on the table is a truly startling display of geoengineering. This week, scientists at Britain’s University of York (my home city, and a hotbed of eco-innovation at the moment) have just released the results of an experiment to move a species of butterfly to the limits of its traditional temperature “comfort zone”, to be encouraged to embrace a new habitat. It did – and it’s thriving.

The technique is called Assisted Colonization – and the implications are immense. Entire populations could, at great expense, be moved out of one habitat to another, staying one step ahead of global warming and continuing to thrive in the wild. Only the species most at risk would be targeted for such drastic measures, such as small plant-life relying on the wind to migrate painfully slowly (via seed dispersal).

It’s tinkering with Nature on an epic scale, and critics are going to find it easy to sling mud. We still understand only a fraction of the complex interdependencies within an ecosystem. The danger – take away a supporting beam (ie. a creature that is a vital link in the food chain, or necessary to propagate other species, such as the way bees pollinate apple trees), and the whole structure crashes down.

Are the risks worth the rewards?

Image: Paraflyer

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.