Charles Darwin performed the world's first terraforming experiment

Nearly two centuries ago, famed scientists Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker transformed the barren volcanic island of Ascension into a lush artificial ecosystem, unwittingly inventing terraforming. Now, Darwin's incredible achievement could help us transform Mars into a livable environment.

Darwin and Hooker, with the assistance of the Royal Navy, managed to create a functional ecosystem in decades, rather than the million of years it would have taken for such a system to develop naturally. Although much of Ascension remains arid, they were able to plant enough trees to capture rainwater without it all evaporating away, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem that made life a whole lot easier for its inhabitants.

Dr. Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at Liverpool John Moores University, explains why he found the Ascension ecosystem so strange when he first visited in 2003, and why it's important:

"I remember thinking, this is really weird. There were all kinds of plants that don't belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened. What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error."

Wilkinson believes these principles could be adapted to colonization efforts on Mars, although he notes scientists have yet to seriously consider the lessons Darwin's work on Ascension could teach us. For more on this remarkable story, check out the full article at BBC News

[BBC News; thanks to Mathmos for the tip!]