Invading Species (04.01.05) - Some of those pretty spring plants that gardeners love to add to their yards might be alien invaders that take over local forests instead.
Bird Extinction (03.03.05) - A sure sign that spring is on its way is the appearance of birds flying back from their winter vacations. But a Stanford ecologist warns that the sight of many of our feathered friends could become scarce in the future.
Turtle Trouble (04.15.04) - The worlds largest turtle seems headed for extinction, and its biggest struggle may be with fishing gear. Could changing some of that gear help solve the problem?
What was earth like before people took it over? Scientists are using ecology records and computers to map our lost landscapes. This ScienCentral News video explains.
Charting Change in the Wild Big Apple
Long before Frank Sinatra sang about making it there, the explorer Henry Hudson did. After three failed attempts to locate the Northwest Passage, in 1609, Hudson became the first European to find New York. And just like most tourists, he was impressed.
"The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon, and it also abounds in trees of every description," Hudson gushed in a journal entry.
Today, many agree that New York City abounds in at least one thing – development – thus its moniker, the Concrete Jungle. So, what happened to its wildlife between 1609 and 2005? That's a story arc that landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson, of the Wildlife Conservation Society at New York's Bronx Zoo, is tracing in detail in the Mannahatta Project, a 1609 recreation of Manhattan's landscape. "It's amazing what kinds of things were here," Sanderson says. "Wolves, cougars, elk, beavers. You know, beavers are on the Manhattan city seal. Well, they were here in abundance before."
image: Wildlife Conservation Society
Like a modern Sherlock Holmes, Sanderson is piecing together what happened to these species and is solving the mystery of what Manhattan may have looked like before people moved in…and in…and in. To roll back time, he asked nearly 50 scientists, including mammologists, climatologists, pollenologists and others, to sift through hundreds of years of animal and plant studies. Sanderson feeds the information into a computer program. After analysis, he builds layers that sit like transparencies over Manhattan's original landscape. By project's end, he hopes to have thousands of layers, one for every species.
Some of the information Sanderson and others are collecting comes from rather unlikely sources; in one instance, from a British governor, who in 1745, corresponded with renowned Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus about plant life in New York. But it's technology that really makes the project tick. "Computers enable us to compare information and to build models of what the landscape was like and then to recreate photographs and pictures," Sanderson says. His computer-generated images of 1609 Manhattan show a cigar-shaped island, stretching out, lush and green. Now that people can see what's been lost, Sanderson says he hopes they'll appreciate what's still here: "We forget…how important nature is as a beautiful place, as a spiritually fulfilling place…so by relating what's at 5th Avenue and 59th Street today to what it was 400 years ago, we start to understand why wildness is important."
This isn't the first time Sanderson has compressed humongous amounts of information into visuals. He once took population studies, light pollution data, and land use, among other inputs, and mapped the impact of people on the planet. He called that project the Human Footprint. Through it, he found that our activity has "influenced 83 percent of the land surface" worldwide. That prompted him to formulate a question that he believes could be the most fundamental one of the 21st century: "What is the human relationship to nature that we want to have? Nature will take whatever we can give it. We need to ask ourselves what we want to give to nature."
Despite much success, backpedaling on conservation efforts remains a danger and fewer resources are pouring into conservation coffers these days. "We spend more money in this nation on toothpaste than we do on conservation," Sanderson says, adding that there's also not enough discussion about choices that impact nature. "To get from 1609 to 2005, it took 25 generations of people making decisions about what kind of landscape and what kind of world they live in. The question is what is Manhattan going to look like 200 years from now? Is it going to be taller and taller and taller buildings? Is the whole world going to be taller and taller and taller buildings? It's a choice that we make today…and our kids will make that choice…and people 200 years, 400 years from now inherit the consequences," he says.
If people prioritize, Sanderson says there's still time to rescue wild resources: "We have the science and we have the capacity to make better choices. It's just getting society to make those choices."