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Charles Darwin and Worlds of the Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, September 10, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
A recently-revisited experiment Charles Darwin began nearly 200 years ago could hold lessons forcreating an environment on Mars that would sustain life as we know it, some scientists believe.

In 1836, as Charles Darwin's exploratory voyage on the HMS Beagle was nearing an end, he visited the remote volcanic island of Ascension in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa and 1,400 miles from South America. A BBC News story by Howard Falcon-Lang describes the island's amazing transformation from a land of barren volcanic ash to a lush oasis where mountain peaks are covered with a "cloud forest" of pine, eucalyptus, banana and bamboo.

David Catling, a University of Washington professor who studies "astrobiology", a new branch of science concerned with the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and the possible variety of life beyond Earth, has been studying Darwin's travels. He thinks Darwin and his friend Joseph Hooker, a botanist and explorer himself, decided to experiment with creation of an artificial ecosystem. Working with the British Royal Navy, and Kew Gardens, where Hooker's father was director, Hooker began having shiploads of trees sent to Ascension and planted.
An Ascension government website and a Science Daily story explain that the island's original plant life was decimated in the 1500s because goats released by Portuguese explorers ate most of it. The subsequent introduction of rabbits, sheep, donkeys and rats continued the trend. Darwin noticed that Ascension's scant rain evaporated because there were few plants to hold the moisture. The BBC story explains the trees on Green Mountain, the highest peak, capture the sea mist that earned the name cloud forest.
David Wilkinson, an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, who has studied Ascension's unusual ecosystem, told BBC he had initially been surprised by the way plants that don't normally belong together were growing side by side. It is an artificially created ecosystem that developed and became self-sustaining in decades, rather than centuriesCatling and Wilkinson think this early experiment in "terra-forming" may have lessons useful in an effort to create habitable environments on Mars or even elsewhere.
Scientists made another usual recent discovery on the island. The Science Daily story tells of local conservationists who discovered small sprigs of parsley fern, declared extinct in 2003 growing on a steep mountainside. They risked life and limb to nurture the perilously placed plants, eventually cultivating spores they placed in sterile containers so they could be flown and then raced by car to Kew Gardens. The survival of the plants on Ascension and in England was hailed a fitting celebration for the UN's International Year of Biodiversity. The island is also home to a seabird restoration project, begun because the bird populations have been thinned by feral cats, initially imported to get rid of rats.

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