Darwin the terraformer

This is beautiful. Charles Darwin, father of the modern theory of evolution, was also a pioneer of ecology. And with a botanist friend of his, Joseph Hooker (who would become the director of Kew Gardens), he took upon himself to build up an ecosystem (cf. BBC News) on the tiny volcanic island of Ascension, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Kept arid by the hot trade winds from Africa, Ascension Island lacked trees and rainwater, so the two English scientists (with the logistical help of the Royal Navy, for whom Ascension was a useful base of operations) decided to import tall tropical trees in the hope that they would capture moisture from rainclouds, reduce evaporation and enrich the soil with their leaves.

The effect of this artificial vegetation cover? It boosted the evolution of the ecosystem! What would have normally taken tens of thousands, or maybe millions of years, by the slow, gradual process of co-evolution (birds bringing plant seeds with their feces, plants adapting to the new environment, etc.), was accomplished in a matter of decades. There is now a forest on Ascension’s peaks, and it does capture moisture from drifting clouds, and transformed the cinder-like volcanic island into a lush, green, tropical oasis in the midst of the ocean.

Can it get better? Perhaps. Some scientists, among them the British ecologist David Wilkinson, think that the Ascension Island experiment could help devise strategies for the terraformation of other planets, like of course Mars.

From the Victorian pioneers of biological sciences to (maybe) tomorrow’s space conquests? We do live in a world of science fiction!

2 réponses à “Darwin the terraformer

  1. Excellent ! And very inspiring indeed…

  2. We tend to think of evolution of a slow process. That is mostly true, but evolution can go fast also. For insects which has short lifespans and reproduce in large numbers, genetic change can occur quite quickly if there is substantial stress/pressure on a given population.

    Speciation (new species) can also occur quickly, For example, the apple trees, brought to America, are associated with parasitic flies that evolved to take advantage of this new niche, this means in one or two centuries, you now have new species of insects parasiting apple trees.

    Speciation can even happen instantly! Imagine a plant that has a genetic error/mutation and can’t reproduce/produce viable seeds when mixed with the rest of its population of origin, but can still auto-polisise itself or if not, can propagate through non-sexual means, that is instantly a new species right there even if it still looks similar to the parent stock.

    Who needs science fiction when we have the wonders of the real world ? LOL

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