UT butterfly biologist advocates moving species in response to climate change

Neil Jones neil at nwjones.demon.co.uk
Sat Mar 13 15:29:23 EST 2010

Mike Quinn wrote:
> Second attempt....
> (Pardon the cross posts. Mike Quinn, Austin)
> Feb 24, 2010
> A home from home: saving species from climate change
I think this is the one you need. I am aware of Dr Parmesan's work due 
to my interest in Checkerspots. She is rather a big cheese in that 
research area.


Picture an elephant in the wild, making its stately progress across the 
­savannah, tall grass bending ­beneath its feet. Now ­transplant that 
image to the American prairie. In one of the most startling new ideas to 
emerge about ­climate change 
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate-change>, a leading 
conservation <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/conservation> 
biologist is calling for plants and wildlife 
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/wildlife> facing extinction to be 
saved simply by picking them up and moving them.

Camille Parmesan, a butterfly ­biologist at the University of Texas at 
Austin, has been monitoring the effects of rapid climate change on 
­species – particularly those threatened because they cannot adapt to or 
­escape from rising temperatures – for more than a decade now. But her 
idea for a modern day's Noah's ark remains hugely controversial.

"The idea is that, for certain ­species at very high risk of extinction 
due to climate change, we should actively pick them up and move them to 
­suitable locations that are outside their historic range," she tells me 
in her ­office at the university campus, near the biology laboratory in 
which she and her ­husband keep myriad caterpillar samples in the cold 

Her proposals, once confined to a handful of scientists, are now getting 
a broader airing as governments begin to grapple with the enormous 
problem of how to insulate animal and plant life from a warming climate. 
Shortly after appearing in the Atlantic magazine's list of "brave 
thinkers of the age 
<http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200911/brave-thinkers2/4>", ­Parmesan 
­lobbied negotiators, ­environmental ­activists and scientists at last 
­December's climate change summit in Copenhagen to start drawing up 
plans to move animals that are most at risk.

She is, not ­surprisingly, frustrated and angry with the failure of 
governments to cut the ­emissions that cause climate change. After the 
­subsequent ­discovery of a false claim about melting Himalayan 
­glaciers by the UN's climate body the IPCC, Parmesan also stresses that 
conservationists should not fall into a pattern of reflexively blaming 
climate change for each and every decline in wildlife. However, she 
­remains convinced of the dangers to the world's animals from a rapidly 
warming atmosphere.

Scientists have long believed that 20% to 30% of all known ­species of 
land animal, bird and fish could become extinct because of climate 
change. But recent studies, based on more elevated temperature 
­projections, have suggested an even greater rate of die-off – 40% to 
70% – as heatwaves, drought and the increasing acidification of the 
oceans drive animals from their native ­habitats and destroy their food 

The sheer scale of threatened ­extinctions have forced conservationists 
to rethink what was once dismissed as an outlandish notion. And it's got 
Parmesan thinking about elephants . . .

To date, there is little evidence about how climate change – rather than 
traditional threats such as poaching or growing urbanisation – is 
affecting the grasslands where these majestic creatures live in the 
wild. "But at some point, I think we might want to think about moving 
them around," ­Parmesan says.

She has already been pushing for efforts to regenerate America's prairie 
grasslands in parts of Texas and the mid-west, by bringing in big 
grazing animals. There are fossils to suggest there were elephants in 
North America tens of thousands of years ago. So why not transplant 
African elephants to North America?

"With climate change, I am starting to think that, if we do get a 
massive reduction of Africa's grassland, then as I am advocating 
restoration of the US prairie anyway, we can use the large herbivores 
from ­Africa to help that process because they are already co-adapted. I 
wouldn't be opposed to that."

Parmesan can see her way to ­moving other big herbivores too, such as 
­giraffes. She can even justify finding new homes for pandas. However, 
she concedes that most of the planet's iconic large animals would still 
have to find their own way out from climate change – it would be 
impractical to move carnivores, for example.

"What we are advocating is not moving tigers to Africa, nor moving polar 
bears to Antarctica – nothing as dramatic as that – but [on the whole] 
to take species that are fairly innocuous, including a lot of plants and 
insects," she says. "We know enough about their competitive abilities 
and their behaviour, and we have no expectation that they are going to 
be able to take over an eco-system."

Climate studies since 2000 reveal a growing threat to animal life far 
­beyond the polar regions that have been feeling its early impacts. A 
review of ­recent scientific literature showed 52% of species striking 
out for more temperate areas as their traditional habitats became 
unsuitable, migrating from 50km to as far as 1,600km away when geography 
and human settlements allowed.

Climate change is also altering their way of life: some 62% of ­species, 
for example, are mating earlier in the spring. The studies noted huge 
­varieties in response to climate change except for one fatal trait: no 
species was exhibiting the kind of large-scale evolutionary changes 
needed to adapt to warming temperatures in its existing habitat. 
"Evolution is not going to save the polar bear," says Parmesan simply.

If it were up to her, the evacuation would start now – perhaps with a 
­variety of the ephemeral Checker­spot butterfly which started her on 
this ­unlikely career path. Now 48, she did not set out to become a 
campaigner – or even a lepidopterist, for that ­matter. The youngest 
(and smallest) of six daughters, she grew up in a solidly Republican 
family with deep roots in the Texas oil industry. Her mother, a 
geologist, worked for an oil company, as does one of her sisters.

Initially, Parmesan wanted to study primates, but she did not have the 
stomach to work with caged animals. She claims she is uncomfortable even 
describing herself as an environmentalist – although she does drive a 
blue Prius, and watches her carbon footprint.

It was fieldwork that set Parmesan on her more public trajectory, ­after 
she published her first paper on the plight of Edith's Checkerspot. In 
the early 1990s, she spent more than four years rattling across the 
Pacific Northwest in an old Toyota pickup truck, tracking these 
butterflies from Mexico to Alberta.

Earlier researchers – including her husband, Singer – had established 
that the Checkerspot was sensitive to temperature. The trek convinced 
Parmesan that it was dying out ­because of climate change: rising 
­temperatures in California were ­drying up the plant that was its main 
food source, although the butterfly continued to do fine in northern 
­latitudes. And yet Parmesan admits she was, at first, sceptical about 
­projections of the broader impacts of climate change on the animal world.

"I have to admit that 10 years ago, I thought they were a bit too 
extreme," she says. But now she fears the scientific community is 
under-estimating the risk of extinction, and is frustrated with 
conservation organisations for failing to grasp the urgency of this 

When Parmesan first began talking about moving species, or "assisted 
­colonisation", at academic conferences, her fellow biologists erupted. 
They accused her of playing God; of tampering with nature in ways that 
carry enormous risk. They warned that her approach would set off a whole 
new chain of problems. How did Parmesan know the transplants would take 
to their new surroundings? How did she know they would not stage a 
hostile takeover, chasing out the native species?

"I was surprised at how angry ­people got – how emotional," she says. 
"They were just horrified that I advocated playing God. They thought I 
was advocating an engineering ­approach to conservation."

Which, Parmesan concedes, she is. But she argues that her approach may 
be the only way left to save some ­species whose escape routes are 
blocked by urban sprawl or punishing desert, or which cannot adapt in time.

Unlike traditional threats to wildlife, Parmesan says there is no 
prospect of recovery from climate change. Loss of habitat and poaching 
can be reversed, given enough money. Threatened animals can be coaxed 
back to healthy numbers – as in the case of the wolf in the Rocky 
Mountain West region of the US. Degraded landscapes can be ­restored. 
But climate change is ­irreversible, at least on a human timescale. And 
besides, it's not as if there hasn't been transportation of animal or 
plant life in the past.

"It doesn't make any sense to say it's OK for the shipping industry and 
the transport industry to accidentally move stuff around, for the 
aquarium trade to move stuff around, for the garden trade to move stuff 
all over the place, but that it's not OK for a conservation biologist 
who is desperately trying to save a species from extinction to move it 
100 miles. Come on, we have mucked around with Earth to such a degree 
that I think it's a ridiculous argument."

In recent years, Parmesan and a handful of other scientists have ­ begun 
work on a blueprint for ­moving plants and wildlife on the verge of 
extinction. She argues it would be far more effective to ­transplant 
entire communities of plants and animals, rather than a few token species.

"If we move individual ­species, it will just be: 'Let's save a few cool 
things for our grandkids.' But if we can get people to think about it on 
a grander scale, it could save some significant percentage of species."

Their idea is to start small – with plants, butterflies, birds, small 
rodents, and mammals – and to restrict the relocation plan to isolated 
spots that are immediately threatened by climate change. That is, 
high-altitude species that are being forced to migrate higher and higher 
up mountains to find cooler temperatures. Parmesan would shift those 
populations to ­another, higher mountain within close range.

It is too soon to say if she is winning the argument. Her ideas are 
still considered ­outside the mainstream of conservationists, and 
undertaking any kind of mass animal rescue will require rewriting 
existing international laws on transporting animals, as well as huge 
infusions of cash. But some of the bigger wildlife NGOs are beginning to 
listen more seriously to what was seen only a decade ago as an 
outlandish idea.

"We need to have as many potential tools as possible in our tool boxes," 
agrees Thomas Brooks of Conservation International. "It is not very easy 
and it is not very cheap, but I do see this as an option that needs to 
be explored when cheaper and easier options aren't working. But this is 
a more difficult and expensive approach*,* and needs to be evaluated 
carefully in that light."

Even with temperature rises of 0.7C, some animals have already been lost 
– such as the golden toad that lives in the cool mountains of Costa Rica 
­(biologists there have warned that more than a dozen amphibian species 
have disappeared from the ­jungles ­because of climate change). And last 
year, researchers in Australia ­reported what would be the world's first 
­mammalian extinction of modern times: the lemuroid ringtail possum. 
These animals drop out of trees and die if the temperature rises above 
30C – ­although subsequent reports suggest a number have since been sighted.

Many other species are under a death ­sentence. In the American west, 
­researchers have charted a sharp ­decline in the pika, a small, furry 
brown animal that lives in the Rocky mountains. As for the polar bear, 
its natural hunting grounds are fast disappearing with the melting sea 
ice. Some studies suggest the Arctic's summer sea ice could disappear 
entirely by 2020, and with it the seals that are the bears' main food 
supply. Recently, Canadian biologists reported at least seven cases of 
male polar bears eating their young because they were going hungry.

But while it's too late for the ­polar bear, Parmesan believes there is 
a chance of saving other animals – ­provided governments and 
conservation organisations overcome their ­reservations and act now. 
"Otherwise, we are going to see a whole slew of species go extinct that 
we could have saved, if only we'd been willing to think a little bit 
more outside the box."


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