In The Field

INQUA: How fossils can help conservationists

Conservationists usually like their species of interest to be alive, not dead. But a couple of presentations here at INQUA suggest that the past has much to teach the present.

Nick Porch of the Australian National University calls his field ‘invasion paleoecology’. Basically, it’s looking in the fossil record to see what animals lived where at certain times. And it can help modern conservationists get a better handle on whether species are truly ‘native’ to a particular area or not, he told the meeting today.

Take ants. The kingpin of all ant studies, E.O. Wilson, has apparently said that ants are invasive species in the Pacific islands east of Samoa, and that they show up only after European ships arrived some 400 years ago. But Porch has looked at the ant record on the island of Rimatara in French Polynesia. And it turns out that there are plenty of ants in the fossil record there: They showed up about 900 years ago, when Polynesians first populated the islands. So ants came with people, but with the Polynesians (not the Europeans) first.

You might not care about ants in the South Pacific, but how about agricultural pests in Hawaii? An insect known as the nigra scale (Parasaissetia nigra) supposedly was introduced to Hawaii from Africa within the past few centuries. But it wasn’t, says Porch – his studies suggest it’s one of the most common creatures in the fossil record of the islands.

And what about birds in Britain? John Stewart of University College London has looked at whether birds such as eagle owls – the largest owl in Western Europe – actually used to live in Britain. Some pairs have been seen there breeding in the past decade, but no one is sure whether they are new to the island or have simply come back after having been gone for many generations.

See here (subscription required) for an earlier story on this topic — and one that ruffled Stewart’s feathers! At the meeting he said he was unhappy at how he had been quoted in the piece…read it yourself and see if you think it’s over the top.

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