The idea that human activities have an impact on the ecosystem is not a surprising one. Today, human activity causes large and small disruptions in our environment all around the world. However, a new study has brought to light an example from centuries ago, observed through the study of bone remains.
Guadeloupe is an archipelago of over twelve islands in the Caribbean Sea. After analysing over 43,000 individual bone remains from fossil and archaeological assemblages on six of these islands, the research has concluded that about half of the snake and lizard population on this archipelago went extinct after European colonisation starting in 1492.
The tropical islands were first brought to the notice of the Europeans at the end of the 15th century when Christopher Columbus first set foot on it. In the first half of the 1600s, the French colonised the land, after expelling the Spanish settlers and slaughtering the locals. According to the new study, the island lost about 50% to 70% of its squamate species, or bigger reptiles, post 1492. On the other hand, the paper observes that during Indigenous habitation, the population of these species increased and they coexisted. Moreover, records suggest that two new lizard species were introduced in this duration prior to colonisation.
“In recent years, recognition of early human impacts has led to a kind of acceptance of humans as this inherently destructive species. Yet the Guadeloupe data clearly show that Indigenous life-ways were supportive of snake and lizard biodiversity, whereas European ones were not. This provides us with important information for future management and sustainability initiatives, and calls into question some of the ways conservationists deal with Indigenous communities globally,” notes Professor Nicole Boivin, one of the authors of this study.
The large-scale extinction of mid-sized reptile species highlights the impacts of the shift from Indigenous methods to colonial ones, especially in agriculture. A combination of factors such as soil degradation, loss of insect diversity and population, and overall destruction of habitats put pressure on snakes and lizards. Over the years, deliberate efforts of colonisers to control the population of snakes through methods such as the introduction of mongoose added to this.
The study and its findings highlight the need to closely analyse the impact of past human activities on the local biodiversity and ecosystems. The findings have been published in the Science Advances journal.
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