Surveys commissioned by the Spanish king in the 16th century provide an unprecedented ecological picture  science

Surveys commissioned by the Spanish king in the 16th century provide an unprecedented ecological picture science

In the 1570s, when King Philip II of Spain sent emissaries to survey the flora and fauna of villages in central and southern Spain, he wasn’t thinking about ecological networks or extinction. He just wanted to know exactly what he owned. So he asked at least two people in each village to describe the soil, flora and fauna of their territory to his surveyors. Now, 450 years later, a team of ecologists says the responses to that survey are as valuable as ecological surveys taken before the word “ecology” entered the lexicon.

Illustration 'Bears' from 'The Book of Hunting
This 15th-century drawing of bears in the wild represents what newly studied questionnaires reveal about the ecology, including the presence of brown bears, in historic Spain.Gaston Phebus © Mazarine Library/© Charmet Archives/Bridgeman Images

“I think it’s brilliant,” said Ana Rodrigues, a conservation biologist at the Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in France, who was not part of the research. “The survey was a historical document and now it has become an ecological data”.

The new work was carried out by Duarte Viana, an ecologist at the Doñana Biological Station (part of Spain’s National Research Council) and his colleagues. They used the king’s questionnaire responses and historians’ transcriptions to create a list of plants, animals and their respective ecological zones, providing an environmental picture of Castile, a large kingdom located in modern-day central and southern Spain. almost from 500 years ago. In their work, recently published in Ecologythey found that various animals that lived and roamed across central Spain are now restricted to northern Spain, while some plants that are abundant in the country now were not around in the 16th century.

Other similar inventories based on historical documents exist, Viana says. For example, researchers in 2018 collected ecological information from 400 years ago using a 17th-century natural history text from Scotland, but that text was also a science text, Viana explains, making his team’s work – using a document that was not an obvious work of science – unique.

The Viana team chose to analyze questionnaires from 1574, 1575 and 1578. King Philip II asked peasants in the kingdom to answer questions about plants and animals, how people made a living, available natural resources such as wood, and social organization, by including the number of families in a certain village.

The natives, who may not have been literate, likely told their answers to the surveyors, who wrote them down in Old Castilian. Historians of the early 20th century then translated these answers into modern Spanish. Viana and his team mainly used these transcriptions to understand the old documents.

The researchers focused their inventory on flora and fauna that were considered important to be able to recreate 16th century habitats, such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian wolf and the bay oak (Quercus ilex or Quercus rotundifolia), which are all considered national species in Spain. The team’s focus also included natural resources important in 16th-century Spain, such as animals that peasants could hunt or fish and those that had medicinal uses, such as leeches. They also considered dangerous species such as wolves and bears. In total, the team collected 7,309 records of 75 wild plants, 89 wild animals, and 60 domesticated plants and animals.

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 present-day habitat in northern Spain. European eel (Anguilla anguilla) was distributed throughout Spain’s main water bodies, but construction projects in these water bodies meant that the eels today are trapped and confined to the estuaries of Spain.

But other findings served to reinforce today’s knowledge. For example, some species thought to be native to Spain, such as freshwater crayfish, did not appear to be present in the 16th century, which is consistent with the fact that some species were introduced to Spain much later.

Knowing the ecological history of different species can shape how conservationists approach their efforts, Viana said. The European eel, for example, is categorized 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 the location his historical to increase protection.

Some animals never made it to the modern day. Only two villages, for example, reported seeing the zebra, an ancient wild “donkey horse” that had stripes similar to today’s zebras but gray hair reminiscent of donkeys and horses. When the team compared mentions of the zebra – where modern-day zebras also get their name – in 16th-century questionnaires with mentions in 18th-century historical documents, they realized that the animal had not been mentioned in later documents with likely because she was going through her disappearance at the time. “It was a straightforward story of the extinction of that species,” Viana said.

María Portuondo, a retired historian of science at John Hopkins University who was not involved in the study, cautions that it is difficult to verify the authenticity of the answers in the questionnaires given the many steps of translation. Not only were the original answers translated before they were written, but a Spanish lord — a mayor, governor or parish priest — likely edited them as well, she said. And 20th-century historians likely redacted the responses again, as they translated and published more digestible versions of the questionnaire responses. “The Spanish translators, in their efforts to make it comprehensible in Spanish, could have translated the name as wolf when it meant a panther,” Portuondo explained.

Viana admits that even with the translations, it was sometimes “really hard” to understand what the villagers were referring to, especially when they used region-specific names. To counter this, researchers went through lists of synonyms and vernacular names of the species to identify the plant or animal being referred to.

Portuondo says other historians hoping to use the ecology inventory may run into similar issues. “So let’s say you’ve never seen a mongoose, and someone described it to you as ‘ferret, but a little bigger.’ You’ll get the picture,” Portuondo explained. “The challenge is that for modern-day biologists, it matters whether the actual animal some 450 years ago was a ferret or a mongoose. This is the challenge of using 450-year-old questionnaires!”.

For Rodrigues, who specializes in large-scale biodiversity conservation, the summary of species from this new study provides a starting point from which she can study ecosystems over time. She added that this study could give an idea of ​​what nature was really like, rather than what we might have assumed it was like in the 16th century.

That’s the hope of the investigators behind the dataset, that the inventory can help give scientists a broader picture of where the species existed. By doing this study, Viana and his team were able to paint a picture of individual species in the past, but they hope, over time, to also understand how different species coexisted. And perhaps, with better conservation efforts, some of those past relationships could be revived. “We can only imagine how it interacts between the major [animals] in the Iberian Peninsula it may have been in the past. Shall we witness it again?” said Viana.

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