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Charles Darwin's Best-Kept Secret 254

beschra writes "BBC writes of 'terra-forming' Ascension Island, one of the islands Charles Darwin visited. He and a friend encouraged the Royal Navy to import boatloads of trees and plants in an attempt to capture the little bit of water that fell on the island. They were quite successful. The island even has a cloud forest now. From the article: '[British ecologist] Wilkinson thinks that the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, rather than trying to improve an environment by force, the best approach might be to work with life to help it "find its own way."'"
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Charles Darwin's Best-Kept Secret

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  • ok... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by garyisabusyguy ( 732330 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @12:52AM (#33445834)

    let's spray the bugger with lichen, they seem to survive everywhere []

    • Re:ok... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 ) < minus herbivore> on Thursday September 02, 2010 @01:19AM (#33445986)

      You were modded funny, but it is not particularly hard to imagine a specially engineered lichen growing in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It could go dormant during the winter, and briefly grow during the summer when the sun begins to melt the (mostly CO2) icecap creating strong southward winds.

      Scientists discover new extremophiles every year, the more we learn the more we discover the window that life can survive in is larger than we originally thought.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by FooAtWFU ( 699187 )
        On a tangentially related note, I hear that peas are one of the prime candidates for farming on the Moon (which has month-long day/night cycles and plenty of cold).
      • You were modded funny, but it is not particularly hard to imagine a specially engineered lichen growing in the northern hemisphere of Mars. It could go dormant during the winter, and briefly grow during the summer when the sun begins to melt the (mostly CO2) icecap creating strong southward winds.

        Scientists discover new extremophiles every year, the more we learn the more we discover the window that life can survive in is larger than we originally thought.

        Oh lets just throw everything on it and see what sticks.

        • Oh lets just throw everything on it and see what sticks.

          And when we finally have a manned mission to lush green Mars we are greeted by the lines, "Feed Me!"

        • You sound pretty sarcastic, but why not? It's a pretty good idea and it'd even be cheap. Just take some old cold-war era biological warfare ordinance, load it up with as many microbes as you can thing of, and cluster-bomb half of Mars with it. The only downside is you'd run the risk of wiping out whatever native life supposedly might be there already.*

          * I find this to actually be even more of a reason to try it. The idea that earthen life, completely un-evolved for Martian life, would be more effective

      • Scientists discover new extremophiles every year

        More like every day...and just by reading Slashdot.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Xest ( 935314 )

      How about Guanacos too.

      When I was in Chile, up high in the Andes crossing into Argentina, there were two living things up there; Lichen, and Guanacos. Even the drought tolerant and hardy cacti weren't alive at that altitude in such a barren area, nor was there grass or any such thing.

      Lichen sure, but I still to this day have no idea how the fuck the Guanacos survived up there!

      • by tubs ( 143128 )
        Do they eat lichen?
        • by Xest ( 935314 )

          I just Google'd it and apparently they do amongst other things, but as that's all there was at that altitude, presumably some groups of the species live purely off that, unless seeing them there was just part of a migratory route and they only live off Lichen for shorter periods whilst they're up there. To be able to live off lichen and nothing else for any period of time beyond a few days, let alone weeks, possibly months, is in itself absolutely incredible.

  • Mars? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by drumcat ( 1659893 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @01:01AM (#33445890)
    We can't even terraform Earth right. What makes anyone believe that an oxygen-less place like Mars is going to just suddenly sprout weeds? Unless you can turn rust into Miracle-Gro, you're pretty borked.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 )

      Well for one thing, plants usually need CO2, not oxygen....

      Suddenly sprout weeds? Of course not. With sufficient money and engineering eventually support plant growth? Why not?

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Aliotroph ( 1297659 )

        They need both. This gets overlooked a lot, but plant cells, at least in plants they showed us in high-school biology, needed oxygen too. In an ecosystem like we have, perhaps they use a lot of the oxygen they create, but they need some to start with. Perhaps it's best to start with even simpler life.

      • Re:Mars? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by wisdom_brewing ( 557753 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @05:56AM (#33447160) Homepage
        1) Build temperature regulated greenhouse
        2) Fill it with higher pressure martian atmosphere (say 10x pressurised)
        3) Pump in a "bit" more oxygen
        4) Plant sugar cane first thing in the morning thats been kept alive elsewhere before
        5) Sugar cane is bottlenecked by CO2 content of air on earth, on mars probably not, but it should create enough oxygen over the day to sustain itself at night.
        6) ?????
        7) Profit!!!
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      Let alone radiation galore because it has no magnetic field.

    • Uhmm, plants don't need oxygen, they make it from CO2.
  • yea ok... sure. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bakamorgan ( 1854434 )
    Thats not going to happen since mars climate can dip to -100 degrees C (-150 degrees F) late at night, even near the equator. That will kill about anything there is trying to grow.
    • Well it would have to be an extremophile.

      "Lichens aren’t only frugal and robust, they jug out because of their very low sensibility against frost. Some lichens, in an experiment, survived a bath in liquid nitrogen at minus 195 degrees." (

    • Re:yea ok... sure. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Xest ( 935314 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @05:05AM (#33446966)

      This isn't true. Even some species of cacti, for example, those in Canada are hardy down to that temperature. Opuntia humifusa (syn. O. compressa), and Escobaria vivipara have proven hardy down to -120c in the lab. Whilst they wont do much at this temperature, they're examples of more complex plantlife being able to clearly survive it. Cactaceae are also hardly the most adapted to this sort of climate, I'm sure there is plantlife that is even far more adapted to survive such temperatures than these examples.

  • by Yvan256 ( 722131 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @01:26AM (#33446012) Homepage Journal

    The Royal Navy doesn't have any space ships.

  • "cloud forest " something like "Cloud Computing" of the past??

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 02, 2010 @01:34AM (#33446060)

    According to this AscensionIsland government press release :

    "Goats were released onto Ascension by Portuguese explorers in the 1500s, and ate their way voraciously
    through the island’s greenery for 350 years before the flora was even described to science. By this stage, there wasn’t much left, and the introduction of rabbits, sheep, rats and donkeys, together with over 200 species of invasive plants, further squeezed out the island’s original plant inhabitants. With the rediscovery of Anogramma ascensionis the island’s surviving six endemic plant species are now boosted to a magnificent seven."

  • They've been planting trees on the edge of the Taklamakan. I read about that years ago, here's a link [].

    As others have pointed out, prior humans may have created the problem, so we are really just repairing the damage.

    I don't see how this ties in with terraforming very much, which is taking something that never had life in the first place and establishing it.

    • The entire point is that with extremely primitive means, they turned a volcanic (read liveless) island into a lush paradise. It proves that the creation of an eco system is something that CAN be managed without waiting for nature to do it very very slowly.

      It shows we CAN reverse de-forestation and it shows that man CAN have a large impact.

      Of course you need to be able to get your head past "but it is not 100% the same so it must be fail" that capability is what seperates the leaders from the sheep. Guess

      • by RichiH ( 749257 )

        To be fair, the general circumstances on Earth seem to better than on Mars. That being said, while I do not expect anything to really happen on Mars while I live, it will be do-able at some point, somehow. Unless we mess up and destroy civilization, that is :)

      • It would be far more useful if we'd had a control island right next to it to see if life naturally returned in that time. After all, we already know Earth (of this time period) has perfect conditions for supporting life, to use this as evidence that we can terraform other planets is quite the leap, there are much, much [] bigger issues to solve on Mars than soil erosion.
  • Units (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @01:50AM (#33446148) Homepage Journal

    How many boat loads in a fuckton?

  • by Slur ( 61510 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @02:32AM (#33446354) Homepage Journal

    Here's a video about how a rainforest was created in only 20 years, altering weather and creating a habitat for abundant life. This could be done all over the world to mediate the effects of Human activity. []

  • How they figure that? I didn't see a Wal*Mart in the pictures!
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      How they figure that?

      Well, you answered it yourself:

      I didn't see a Wal*Mart in the pictures!

      That's clearly success!

  • Darwin also... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by drkim ( 1559875 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @03:55AM (#33446708)
    Darwin was also a genius in many other ways...

    Many years before the fossil and DNA discoveries that might have helped him, he conjectured that human life evolved on the continent of Africa and spread outward.
  • And the first recorded modern practice of permaculture as a systematic method was by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer in the 1960s.
    Permaculture []Essentially one designs systems that run using existing natural ecologies using paths of least resistance and capturing energy/matter.
    Interestingly enough natural agriculture systems designed using these principle have no theoretical maximum yield.
  • At least not at a planatary scale. It's core is near frozen solid. Leaving it's magnetosphere too weak to protect the planet from solar wind. So, unless they plan to reignight it's core, better start looking at Venus as a new home.
    • by RichiH ( 749257 )

      It _can_ be terraformed to better facilitate supporting human life in sealed enclosures. It can _not_ be terraformed to be a second Earth.

  • by hellop2 ( 1271166 ) on Thursday September 02, 2010 @05:06AM (#33446974)
    Looks more like a few dozen trees and some scrub to me. []

    I was thinking "Terraformed!" Like Jurassic Park style.
  • ridge != volcanoes (Score:2, Informative)

    by piotru ( 124109 )

    From the BBC article:
    "Its existence depends entirely on what geologists call the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is a chain of underwater volcanoes formed as the ocean is wrenched apart."
    I beg to differ. mid-Atlantic ridge forms above the spreading zone, and is by no means a chain of volcanoes.

  • Not to be a troll, but by his own example doesn't Darwin show that a designer is needed in order to improve things when a system is present and interdependencies are real.
    • There was no design, they simply took existing organisms and relocated them. Who tells you nature might not have achieved the same in a thousand years? Who tells you natives did not cut down all wood for boats before Darwin came along (I seem to remember some research in that area)?

      And above all: What metrics are you using when you speak of "improve"? Improve for human life? Sure, but then every garden, every park and every agricultural area is proof for Intelligent Design.

    • Just because something is sufficient does not make it necessary.
    • No, he shows that a designer is needed in order to improve things quickly. Life would have likely returned to the island eventually, once the conditions were right, he just helped it along. Not to mention we hardly "improved" things, since we were responsible for the initial devastation caused by introducing grazing animals, and it's hardly back to its former glory. The evolutionary process on Earth was anything but speedy, if there was a designer's hand involved why did it take billions of years to get to
  • Hey /. Change the photo on this article! Thankew.
  • It's been theorized that the Sahara used to be a lush verdant area. Perhaps this technique could reconvert it back to this once pristine state over the course of a few centuries of hard work?

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.