Finnish Museum of Natural History

Assisted Migration

Assisted Migration in Climate Change Adaptation: Opportunities and Constraints (CO-ADAPT) research project (1) explores whether conservation motivated moving of species to track climate change makes sense, (2) develops  knowledge base for selecting species and populations in case moving of them becomes an option, (3) analyzes juridical questions pertaining to assisted migration and provides recommendations for new regulations, and (4) delves into the ethical underpinnings of species translocations.

The project is truly interdisciplinary, and it is carried out at the Finnish Museum of Natural History of University of Helsinki, the Finnish Environment Institute, and the universities of Oulu, Turku and Tartu. We collaborate with several other research groups: ESCAPE (Finnish Museum of Natural History), Botania (Joensuu), NIBIO Svanhovd, the Hellmann Lab (University of Minnesota), McLachlan Lab (University of Notre Dame), and Alejandro Camacho (University of California, Irvine). The research has been funded by an Academy of Finland-funded research project (CO-ADAPT), the European Union Life + Biodiversity-funded research project (ESCAPE) at the Botany Unit of Museum of Natural History, LUOVA Doctoral Programme in Wildlife Biology Research (University of Helsinki) and Kone Foundation.

Changing climate is nothing new: during Earth’s history climate has changed and conditions have varied. When changes have occurred, species have basically had two options: adapt to new conditions or migrate to areas of better suitability. If a species is not able to do either of these two, it will, most likely, go extinct. 

Current climate change is happening at pace that is far faster than any of the previous ones, and this leaves species less time for adapting or migrating. Moreover, humans are compromising the dispersal of species by building barriers, such as roads and cities. 

Estimated and already experienced impacts of climate change have inspired a discussion on human-mediated migration of species to move a species to new, climatically suitable areas.

These kinds of translocations beyond the species’ indigenous range give rise to biological, juridical and ethical questions. Which are the species to be translocated, where to, and when? How can we make sure that the species will not turn invasive? Is it legal to translocate the species? How much should we interfere in nature? Robust solutions to these questions, as has been pointed out, require a truly holistic understanding of the matter.

Definition: Assisted Migration

Assisted migration means "safeguarding biological diversity through the translocation of representatives of a species or population harmed by climate change to an area outside the indigenous range of that unit where it would be predicted to move as climate changes were it not for anthropogenic dispersal barriers or lack of time" (Hällfors et al. 2014).

Biological Challenges

  • What are the traits that make plant species vulnerable to climate change?
  • How can we identify the species that would benefit from assisted migration?
  • What are the genetic and ecological risks involved in translocating species?
  • Is it possible to apply assisted migration for Finnish plant species? Is it feasible?
  • How could assisted migration be implemented in practice?

The foundation of this project is in biological research and in the aim of gaining biological knowledge of assisted migration through species distribution models and common garden experiments. Our research will bring important theoretical and practical information for the debate of assisted migration. The outcome will also bring practical tools and guidelines for the environmental administration and for other conservationists to whom assisted migration may become relevant in the near future.

Juridical Challenges

  • Is assisted migration referenced in the field of environmental law?
  • How is assisted migration regulated in Finland – and elsewhere?
  • Are there any loopholes in the regulation and how should they be solved?
  • Is there a need for new regulation and how should we make it consistent with the current one?

As a nordic and latitudinally long country, Finland may play an important role in applying assisted migration. For this reason, the project aims to find out whether the current environmental protection law allows possibilities for applying assisted migration in Finland. The purpose is to scrutinize current legislation in order to find out and interpret its character and obstacles, and to recognize needs for change in a situation where one would like to assist a species in its migration. In addition to this, the research project will compare translocation-related legislation of various countries as differences in legislation may present an obstacle to assited migration if the translocation involves crossing nation boundaries. We also aim to recognize juridical problems by interviewing conservation managers.

Ethical Questions

  • Is assisted migration ethically acceptable or even required for saving endangered species? If so, under what conditions?
  • How to sensibly weigh risks and the related scientific uncertainties of species translocations against saving a species from extinction?
  • Should the so-called precautionary principle be applied here? If yes, how?
  • Does translocation (human intervention) reduce the intrinsic value of nature or species?
  • How to resolve value conflicts and deep disagreements? Who should be involved in deciding on assisted migration? Who should implement the possible translocations of endangered species?

Methods, targets and aims of conservation are inextricably linked with values. They present choices that should reflect commonly accepted premises. Should we prioritize conservation of species within their current habitats which may be turning into unfavourable ones owing to climate change? Or, should we  concentrate on avoiding extinctions? Or, should conservation efforts be targeted at protecting the integrity of ecosystems or perhaps solely securing ecosystem services?

Only few studies address assisted migration from an environmental ethics perspective to date. Yet, assisted migration is closely connected to many central issues in environmental philosophy, such as the questions of how one understands nature and naturalness, and what is their moral weight. Similarly, assisted migration reintroduces the questions about intrinsic value that species and ecosystems may posses. The fact that climate change and dispersal barriers are (partially) human-caused complicates assessment of the justifiability of assisted migration. Should it be considered repairing a harm caused or compensation, or merely a further step towards human-dominated and -modified “unnatural” world.

Experimental Sites

Botany Unit, Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki
We collaborate with: 
Kilpisjärvi Biological Station (University of Helsinki), NIBIO Svanhovd, The Botanic Garden of the University of TartuOulanka Research Station (University of Oulu), University of Oulu Botanical Gardens, 
Botania (Joensuu), Rauma Seminar, i.e. the Department of Teacher Education botanic garden.

Botanic gardens offer favorable conditions for assisted migration research: Gardens have vast experience in species cultivation outside their natural range. Observations of changes in species together with the observations of climate change can add valuable knowledge about possible effects that climate change might have on species. Botanic gardens also possess experience in ex-situ conservation. Moreover, knowledge in alien species and general tracking of changes in nature are of essence in the operations of botanic gardens. Finally, the infrastructure, resources and plant database they manage also all have vitally important roles. (Hällfors, Vaara & Lehvävirta 2012)

Translocation Trials in Finland, Estonia and Norway

Together with our cooperation gardens and research stations, we are running an experiment to test the effect of climate on plants. The experiment currently extends from Tartu in Estonia through Helsinki, Rauma, Joensuu, Oulu, Oulanka and Kilpisjärvi in Finland to Svanhovd in Norway. To start with, we have set up experimental plots with three plant species: Primula nutans, Oxytropis campestris ssp. sordida and Astragalus alpinus ssp. arcticus. 

The first trial was set up in the spring of 2013 with Primula nutans, in 6 botanic gardens, three test beds in each garden (Tartu, Helsinki, Rauma, Joensuu, Oulu, and Svanhovd). Seeds from wild populations of Primula nutans var. jokelae (from Ii and Haukipudas, Finland) and Primula nutans var. finmarchica (from Kirkenes-area, Norway) were collected for this trial. 

In 2015 two more species, Oxytropis campestris ssp. sordida and Astragalus alpinus ssp. arcticus were added to the experiment, with two new test beds in each garden. Two more experimental sites that represent the home environments for the new species were added: Oulanka research station in Kuusamo and Kilpisjärvi biological station in Enontekiö, Finland. 

With this experimental design we will compare the effect of different climatic conditions on these plants, roughly on a north-to-south axis, with variable climates. We aim to find out if climate is a decisive factor for plant survival, growth and reproduction. This will give us an implication whether climate change will have a direct effect on these species, and whether these species will be threatened by climate change.

More information about the study species:
Astragalus alpinus ssp. arcticus
Oxytropis campestris ssp. sordida
Primula nutans ssp. finmarchica

Kuvat: Maria Hällfors ja Marko Hyvärinen Kuvat: Maria Hällfors ja Marko Hyvärinen

Research Group

Susanna Lehvävirta, PI, ecology
Maria Hällfors, Doctoral student, ecology
Elina Vaara, Doctoral student, law
Marko Ahteensuu, University Researcher, philosophy/ethics
Sami Aikio, University Researcher, ecology

Iida Lehtimäki, Research Assistant, undergraduate student, environmental change and politics
Silviya Bancheva, Doctoral student, environmental change and policy
Leif Schulman, Director, Finnish Museum of Natural History, ecology and evolutionary biology

Marko Hyvärinen, Director, Botany Unit, Finnish Museum of Natural History, ecology

Kai Kokko, Professor of Environmental Law, law

Helena Siipi, Collegium Researcher, environmental ethics and bioethics (first name.surname[at]

Markku Oksanen, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, environmental philosophy and ethics (first name.surname[at]

Terhi Ryttäri, Senior Researcher, endangered species (first name.surname[at]

Email: first name.surname[at]


Hällfors M.H., Vaara E.M., Hyvärinen M., Oksanen M., Schulman L.E., Siipi H. & Lehvävirta S. 2014: Coming to Terms with the Concept of Moving Species Threatened by Climate Change – A Systematic Review of the Terminology and Definitions. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102979. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102979

Ahteensuu M. & Lehvävirta S. 2014: Assisted Migration, Risks and Scientific Uncertainty, and Ethics: A Comment on Albrecht et al.'s Review Paper. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (online first).

Vaara, E.M 2014: Lajien avustetun leviämisen käsite ja sen soveltuminen voimassa olevaan luonnonsuojelulainsäädäntöön. Ympäristöjuridiikka 3–4 s. 117-157.

Oksanen M. 2014: Ympäristöeettisiä mietteitä metsälain uudistuksesta. Metsätieteen aikakauskirja 1/2014: 64-68.

Hällfors M. & Lehtimäki I. 2014: Ruijanesikon siirtokokeet. Pimpinella 30: 9-12.

Ahteensuu M., Aikio S., Cardoso P., Hyvärinen M., Hällfors M.H, Lehvävirta S., Schulman L.E. & Vaara E.M 2015: Quantitative tools and simultaneous actions needed for species conservation under climate change–reply to Shoo et al. (2013). Climatic change 129(1-2): 1-7: doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1311-0

Hällfors M. 2013: Avustetun leviämisen tutkimus Helsingin kasvitieteellisessä puutarhassa. Pimpinella 29: 11-12.

Hällfors M., Vaara E. & Lehvävirta S. 2012: The Assisted Migration Debate  Botanic Gardens to the Rescue? BGjournal 9(1): 21-24.


Coming to Terms with Assisted Migration

Project in Media 

Strandvivan nosar på sydligare breddgrader (BBL 07.10.2014)

Ilmastonmuutos uhkaa jopa puolta Euroopan kasvilajeista (Nelosen uutiset 18.8.2013, video)

Tutkijat siirtävät uhanalaista lajia ilmastonmuutokselta suojaan (HS 18.8.2013)  

Interesting Articles   

Plan seeks ‘chaperones’ for threatened species

Managed relocation: Integrating the scientific, regulatory, and ethical challenges

Don't judge species on their origins

Moving on: Relocating species in response to climate change

Home, home outside the range?

Assisted migration: Redefining nature and nature resource law under climate change

Can "assisted migration" save species from global warming?


Person in charge of the page: 
Silviya Bancheva