Photo of a Siberian primrose (Primula nutans)

Greetings from the Arctic Ocean

The Siberian primrose (Primula nutans) is at risk of disappearing from the wild in Finland, and is potentially threatened with worldwide extinction. The Siberian primrose is suffering from fragmentation of its habitat and warming of the climate. It has also fallen into an ecological trap in Finland.

In Finland, the Siberian primrose primarily grows on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. The closest places where it grows outside the borders of Finland are to be found on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and the White Sea. After the Ice Ages, most of Finland was underwater. At that time, a waterway connected the Gulf of Bothnia and the White Sea, or if there was a land bridge, it was very narrow. Plants that spread to the Gulf of Bothnia back then became separated from their relatives as a result of land uplift, and they began to develop in their own direction.

Finland’s Siberian primroses are considered a separate type, ssp. finmarchica var. jokelae. The type found in northern Norway, on the Kola Peninsula and on the shores of the White Sea, meanwhile, is another variant of the same subspecies (var. finmarchica).  The Siberian primrose’s previous scientific name became the name of a group of plants, Primula sibirica, which refers to types that grow on the seashore and have a two-part distribution range, such that its southernmost occurrences are on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia and the main range is on the shores of the Arctic seas.

The Siberian primrose is a species covered by EU directive and is endangered and fully protected in Finland and Sweden. Many of its habitats have disappeared due to eutrophication of the water, the end of coastal grazing and the spread of strong competitors. Currently about 500 distinct places where the Siberian primrose can be found are known in Finland, which are combined into about 250 areas where it is present.

In addition to changes in the structure of agriculture, climate change also threatens the Siberian primrose. The original Arctic species may not thrive if the climate becomes irrevocably warmer. Although the Siberian primrose is more common on the shores of the Arctic Ocean than along the Gulf of Bothnia, the development trend in Norway is the same as in Finland and Sweden. In 2006, the Siberian primrose in Norway was listed as near threatened, but in the 2015 list, it was an endangered species.  

As of this writing, Finland’s nature conservation act is 28 years old, and is based on the idea that species will remain forever in their areas of occurrence and that nature is by its very essence fairly unchanging and will return to the way it was before after a disruption. So-called assisted colonisation has also been applied to the Siberian primrose, meaning that the plant species is brought to new areas where it could have spread on its own if it could get over obstacles created by humans. 

If, like the Siberian primrose, the species is protected in multiple ways, many exemptions must be obtained in order to move it. Assisted migration is also controversial legally, because under current legal interpretation, a species transferred outside its biological distribution area is an invasive species and potentially dangerous. It has also been asked in discussions on conservation whether the active involvement of humans lessens the intrinsic value of nature or the species, and who should decide, for instance, about assisted migration and perform the actual transfers.  

It has also been brought up in discussions that simply placing a species under protection is not sufficient, since the species cannot exist without its habitat. What use are area-focused protective measures, when climate change threatens to change environmental conditions dramatically in the next 50-100 years and cause the habitats of innumerable species to disappear across widespread areas. Large-scale changes may make small-scale protective measures meaningless.

Published on the Kone Foundation’s Boldness blog 13.8.2018