A restoration ecology professor from The University of Western Australia is using historians' techniques to help assess degraded or damaged landscapes.
ARC Australian Laureate Fellow Professor Richard Hobbs writes in the prestigious journal Science that restoration ecologists rely on written descriptions, photos, maps and paintings, and paleoecological records such as tree rings, rodent middens and sediments.
More recently they are taking into consideration the effects of early human cultures on landscapes, including hunting, harvesting, fire management and extinctions, including the mastodon.
With co-author Professor Stephen Jackson from the University of Wyoming, Professor Hobbs said to facilitate the recovery of a degraded or damaged ecosystem, knowledge of that ecosystem's history is invaluable.
However, ecosystems of even the recent past may be unsustainable under an early 21st century climate, they argue. Instead of aiming for impossible targets, restoration ecologists should take comfort from history and intervene in ways that foster biodiversity and vital ecosystem functions, even if it means that newly restored ecosystems may have combinations of species that would not naturally have co-occurred.
"Restoration ecologists increasingly recognise the ongoing and often inevitable development of novel ecosystems, resulting from species invasions, climate change, land-use legacies, and altered biogeochemical cycles," they write.
"Restoration efforts emphasise managing for change, which is accepted as inevitable, and interventions are directed towards ensuring that desirable ecological goods and services, including aesthetic values, are maintained.
"Paleoecological insights...will advance our capacity to engineer ecosystems successfully. Obviously, the more time we purchase by slowing the rate of global change... the more we increase our capacity for successful adaptation."