Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Welcome to The New Pangea

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1780-1849)
Pangea or Pangaea, was in early geologic time a supercontinent that incorporated almost all the landmasses on Earth, with an ensuing acessibility of all species to each other that had a direct impact on the evolution of exisiting life forms. As the continents drifted apart over vast periods of time, diverse, unique and in their own ways quite fragile eco systems and species have evolved.

In her book The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert points out there is an evolutionary arms race in which each species develops defences against their predators in order to survive - which is not news. A species correspondingly has no defense whatsoever if it encounters a new fungus, virus, bacterium or preadatory creature that did not previously feature in its biological evolution - such as invasive species introduced by various means from other land masess and continents. Such invasions can be extremely deadly, as occurred in the case of American bats killed by the psycrophilic fungus Geomyces destructans. Another example of this occurred in the eighteen hundreds. The American chestnut was the dominant deciduous tree in the eastern forests. Then, a fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) started to cause chestnut blight. It was nearly 100% lethal. The fungus was unintentionally imported to the U.S.

In the Uk we can more recently consider Dutch Elm disease which destroyed most of our ancient Elm trees, the New Zealand Flatworm - which devours the English Earthworm( with all the consequences that loss will have for earth integrity and soil drainage and crop growth), the Grey Squirrel which has virtually displaced our indigenous Red Squirrel - there are countless more .....

Kolbert points out that global trade and travel are creating a virtual "Pangaea", in which species of all kinds are being redistributed beyond historical geographic barriers and faster than evolutionary safeguards can be developed by nature to protect species biodiversity. Rapidly deployed invasive species which have travelled with mankind on ships and trains, more recently in planes across oceans and to far laying islands faster still, are a mechanism of species extinction.

Down from the verge of heavene, Richard Whincop

One of the artworks submitted for the theme of animals, called Bali Turner, Photograph by Joel Singer - The Guardian

It’s hard to say how much nature will change on our New Pangaea, but there is evidence that ecosystems also get more vulnerable to droughts and other calamities when they lose their ecological biodiversity. The network of connections that keeps ecosystems intact becomes simpler and thus easier to tear down, with resulting loss of species and the ability of nature to support them. New Pangaea may even affect the future of evolution itself. With less genetic variation, species are less likely to adapt to a change in the climate or some new predator....

Art featured at top of post, The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Hicks meant the beasts to typify human traits in line with his view of contemporary Quaker politics: the lion symbolized power gained through wealth, the leopard a suave, threatening worldliness. Occasionally animals are in conflict. But even when they aren't, the assemblies have a jumbled, restive feeling. The ground beneath them is eroding; a fissure in the earth separates them from Penn's treaty with the indigenous native people behind.

In a more modern viewing, Hicks' inclusion of the varied animal species along with the invaders from Europe speaks more directly to the rising tides of ecological change, the biodiverse and cultural conflicts and extinctions that preceed the new Pangea....

Rather than a cause for panic and dismay over loss of species diversity and ecologies, an awareness of this situation places us in a position of power - whilst such processes are inevitable given the mobile state of species in the modern world, we might nevertheless at this late stage become guardians of our biological and ecological heritage. We might protect those species and ecologies that we still have and guide future developments of the biosphere for the well being of all.

Dodo skeleton cast and model based on modern research,
at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

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