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andreaa | Jul 30, 2008 07:00 PM

The Quino checkerspot, a pretty patchwork butterfly native to the scrubland of southern California, is not doing so well. The butterfly has been listed as endangered since 1997 and only a few small populations remain.

But a group of biologists have a suggestion for how the Quino—and other organisms on the brink of extinction—might be saved. In an article published in Science earlier this month, Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas at Austin and others argue that in the face of climate change, “assisted colonization”—in which a species is moved to a more hospitable habitat—may be the only chance of saving some endangered species. In dire circumstances, they say, we may be able to save those species that can’t migrate on their own or evolve quickly enough to adapt to a changing climate.

While the press seems to be enjoying speculating on what this could mean—Polar bears wreaking havoc in Antarctica! Lions prowling Kansas!—the scientists’ proposal is a bit more measured. They say that assisted colonization should only be used in cases of imminent extinction, and only when the benefits outweigh the costs. They also recommend moving a species within the same broad biogeographic region if possible.

The proposal has stirred up controversy within the conservation biology community, primarily because human beings have a poor track record with introduced species. Consider the tamarisk, the zebra mussel, the quagga. The cane toad.

But the idea of assisted colonization also begs more philosophical questions. Does the idea represent a drastic shift in how we view the natural world, or is it no different than conservation measures like habitat preservation or captive breeding?  What is an organism worth, in the absence of all context? Are there circumstances in which we simply ought to let a species go?

Here’s hoping the Quino and its endangered brethren survive the climate crisis in their native habitats, leaving such questions to the science fiction set.

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