A tiny wildflower is helping scientists better understand how plants will adapt to climate change in Alberta, and how human intervention might save rare flora and fauna from extinction.
"We wanted to look at a controversial conservation tool called 'assisted migration' which is literally picking up the species and helping it colonize or move to cooler temperatures," said Scott Nielsen, a conservation biologist in the University of Alberta's Department of Renewable Resources, who oversaw the research.
"There are going to be winners and losers in climate change; it boils down to what we want to take care of."
A small team of researchers have been transplanting the northern blazing star out of its small native habitat — a narrow section of the central parkland region from Edmonton to Lloydminster — to a handful of new locations across the province.
According to Nielsen, the plant's growth in each new zone suggests that transplanting species into cooler regions could be an effective way to help plants keep pace with climate change.
When moved to southern Alberta, where temperatures are as hot as those projected for its current habitat later this century, the thistle-like plant failed to thrive. But the plants which were transplanted north to sites in Fort McMurray and Lac La Biche prospered.
"The particular species itself is not the important issue; we used it as a representative species," Nielsen said.
"Plants have always moved with time and changes in climate. But the rates are much higher today and with habitat fragmentation there are questions about whether they will be able to migrate.
"It's very unlikely that it's going to make it north without our help."
Although the technique has raised concerns about the introduction of invasive species, Nielsen says most of the controversy is unfounded. The northern blazing star is native to Alberta, and it was only moved a few hundred kilometres outside its native zone.
"This species is not exotic. It's evolved within the province, evolved within the biota of the other species. It's unlikely to rampantly take off and cause problems with other species."
Nielsen says conservation biologists spend a lot of their time documenting plants and animals that have become extinct, and it's time the sector be more proactive in sustaining native species, he said.
"Do we step back and let nature do its thing while documenting the decline and keeping the obituaries of nature, or should we step in?"