Monday, August 8, 2011

The biological consequences of Columbus

Earthworms, to be precise—especially the common nightcrawler and the red marsh worm, creatures that did not exist in North America before 1492. ...

Intoxicating and addictive, tobacco became the subject of the first truly global commodity craze. ... To feed the demand, English ships tied up to Virginia docks and took in barrels of rolled-up tobacco leaves. Typically 4 feet tall and 2½ feet across, each barrel weighed half a ton or more. Sailors balanced out the weight by leaving behind their ships' ballast: stones, gravel and soil. They swapped English dirt for Virginia tobacco.

That dirt very likely contained the common nightcrawler and the red marsh worm. ...

Spread today by farmers, gardeners and anglers, earthworms are obsessive underground engineers, and they are now remaking swathes of Minnesota, Alberta and Ontario. Nobody knows what will happen next in what ecologists see as a gigantic, unplanned, centuries-long experiment. ...

Much more direct was the role of the Columbian Exchange in the creation of Great Britain. In 1698, a visionary huckster named William Paterson persuaded wealthy Scots to invest as much as half the nation's available capital in a scheme to colonize Panama, hoping to control the chokepoint for trade between the Pacific and the Atlantic. As the historian J.R. McNeill recounted in "Mosquito Empires," malaria and yellow fever quickly slew almost 90% of the 2,500 colonists. The debacle caused a financial meltdown.

At the time, England and Scotland shared a monarch but remained separate nations. England, the bigger partner, had been pushing a complete merger for decades. Scots had resisted, fearing a London-dominated economy, but now England promised to reimburse investors in the failed Panama project as part of a union agreement. As Mr. McNeill wrote, "Thus Great Britain was born, with assistance from the fevers of Panama." ...

The Columbian Exchange continues to this day. The Pará rubber tree, originally from Brazil, now occupies huge swathes of southeast Asia, providing the latex necessary to make the tires, belts, O-rings and gaskets that invisibly maintain industrial civilization. (Synthetic rubber of equal quality still cannot be practicably manufactured.)

Asian rubber plantations owe their existence to a British swashbuckler named Henry Wickham, who in 1876 smuggled 70,000 rubber seeds from Brazil to London's Kew Gardens. Rubber-tree plantations are next to impossible in the tree's Amazonian home, because they are wiped out by an aggressive native fungus, Microcyclus ulei. Much as the potato blight crossed the Atlantic, M. ulei will surely make its way across the Pacific one day, with consequences as disastrous as they are predictable.
--Charles Mann, WSJ, on the biological consequences of 1492. Much, much more in the article.