In the 1770s, when King Philip II of Spain sent emissaries to monitor the flora and fauna of the villages of central and southern Spain, he was not thinking about ecological networks or extinction. He just wanted to know exactly what he owned. Thus, he asked at least two people in each village to describe the land, flora and fauna of their territory to his surveyors. Now, 450 years later, a team of ecologists say the resulting responses to that survey have value as ecological surveys, carried out before the word “ecology” entered the lexicon.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said Ana Rodrigues, a conservation biologist at the Center of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France who was not part of the research. “The survey was a historical document and now it becomes an ecological fact”.
The new work was done by Duarte Viana, an ecologist at the Doñana Biological Station (part of the Spanish National Research Council) and his colleagues. They used responses to the king’s questionnaires and transcripts from historians to create a list of plants, animals and their respective ecological niches, providing an environmental snapshot of Castile, a great kingdom that lay in modern day central and southern Spain, from nearly 500 years ago. In their work, recently published in Ecologythey found that various animals that lived in and roamed central Spain are now confined to northern Spain, while some plants that are abundant in the country now did not exist in the 16th century.
There are other similar inventories based on historical records, Viana says. For example, researchers in 2018 gathered ecological information from 400 years ago using a 17th-century natural history text from Scotland, but that text was also a scientific text, explains Viana, doing her team’s work, using a paper. that it was not an obvious work of science: unique.
Viana’s team chose to analyze the questionnaires of 1574, 1575 and 1578. King Philip II had the villagers of the kingdom answer questions about plants and animals, how people made their living, the natural resources available such as wood and social organization, including the number of families in a given village.
Locals, who may not have been literate, probably told their answers to the surveyors, who wrote them in Old Castilian. Hence, early 20th century historians translated these answers into modern Spanish. Viana and his team mainly used these transcripts to make sense of the old documents.
The researchers focused their inventory on flora and fauna considered important in recreating 16th-century habitats, such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian wolf and the holm oak (Quercus ilex or Quercus rotundifolia), which are all considered national species in Spain. The team’s focus also included important natural resources in 16th-century Spain, such as animals that villagers could hunt or fish and those that had medicinal uses, such as leeches. They also considered dangerous species such as wolves and bears. In all, the team collected 7,309 records of 75 wild plants, 89 wild animals, and 60 plants and pets.
They found that in the 16th century the Cantabrian brown bear and the Iberian wolf both lived in central Spain, which has a different climate and habitat than their current northern Spanish habitat. The European eel (Eel eel) was distributed in all major bodies of water in Spain, but construction projects in these bodies of water have meant that eels today have been trapped and confined only to Spanish estuaries.
But other discoveries have served to reinforce current knowledge. For example, some species believed to be native to Spain, such as freshwater shrimp, did not appear to be present in the 16th century, which is consistent with the fact that some species were only introduced to Spain much later.
Knowing the ecological history of different species could shape how conservationists approach their efforts, Viana said. The European eel, for example, is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, while the Cantabrian brown bear is classified as vulnerable, so scientists may be able to use its historical position to increase protections.
Some animals have never made it to the present day. Only two villages, for example, reported seeing the zebro, an ancient wild “donkey horse” that had stripes similar to today’s zebras but gray hair that resembled donkeys and horses. When the team compared mentions of zebros, which is also where modern zebras get their name, in 16th-century questionnaires with mentions in 18th-century historical records, they realized that the animal was not mentioned. in later documents, probably because it was going through its extinction at the time. “It was a live story of the extinction of that species,” Viana said.
María Portuondo, a retired science historian at John Hopkins University who was not involved in the study, warns that it is difficult to verify the authenticity of the answers in the questionnaires given the many steps towards translation. Not only were the original answers translated before they were written, but it is likely that a Spanish gentleman, a mayor, a governor or a parish priest, also modified them, she said. And 20th-century historians likely edited the answers once again, as they translated and published more digestible versions of the questionnaire responses. “The Spanish translators, in their effort to make it understandable in Spanish, could have translated the name as wolf when it meant a panther,” Portuondo explained.
Viana acknowledges that, even with translations, in some cases it was “really difficult” to understand what the villagers were referring to, especially when they used names specific to the region. To counter this, the researchers looked at lists of synonyms and vernacular names of species to identify the plant or animal being referred to.
Portuondo says other historians who might hope to use the ecological inventory might run into similar problems. “So let’s say you’ve never seen a mongoose, and someone described it to you as a ‘ferret, but a little bit bigger.’ You would have the picture, “Portuondo explained.” The challenge is that for modern biologists, it matters whether the real animal about 450 years ago was a ferret or a mongoose. That’s the challenge of using 450-year-old questionnaires!
For Rodrigues, who specializes in large-scale biodiversity conservation, this new study’s collection of species offers a starting point from which he can study ecosystems over time. She added that this study may provide an idea of what nature actually looked like and not what we might have assumed it was like in the 16th century.
This is the hope of the investigators behind the dataset, that the inventory can help provide scientists with a bigger picture of where the species existed. By doing this study, Viana and his team have been able to paint a picture of individual species in the past, but hope, over time, to also get an idea of how the different species coexisted. And perhaps, with better conservation efforts, some of those past relationships could be resurrected. “We can only imagine how the interaction between the major ones [animals] in the Iberian Peninsula it could have been in the past. Will we assist him again? ”Viana said.