In the 1570s, when King Philip II of Spain sent emissaries to study the flora and fauna of villages in central and southern Spain, he was not thinking of ecological networks or extinction. He just wanted to know exactly what he had. 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 answers obtained from that survey have value as ecological surveys, taken before the word “ecology” entered the lexicon.
“I think it’s great,” 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 “The survey was a historical document and now it becomes ecological data.”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 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 large kingdom that lay in the center and the modern southern Spain, since nearly 500 years ago. In their work, recently published in Ecologythey discovered that various animals that lived and roamed in central Spain are now restricted to northern Spain, while some plants abundant in the country did not exist in the 16th century.
Other similar inventories based on historical records exist, Viana says. For example, researchers in 2018 reunited ecological information from 400 years ago using a 17th-century natural history text from Scotland, but that text was also a scientific text, says Viana, reporting on his team’s work – using a document that was not an obvious scientific work – unique.
Viana’s team chose to analyze questionnaires from 1574, 1575 and 1578. King Philip II asked villagers in the kingdom to answer questions about plants and animals, how people made a living, available natural resources such as wood and social organization, including the number of households in a given village.
The inhabitants, who may not have been literate, probably related their answers to the interviewers, who wrote them down in Old Castilian. Then early 20th century historians translated these responses into modern Spanish. Viana and her team primarily used these transcriptions to make sense of old documents.
The researchers focused their inventory on flora and fauna considered important to be able to recreate 16th century habitats, such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian wolf and the holm oak (Quercus ilex Where Quercus rotundifolia), all of which are considered national species in Spain. The team also focused on natural resources important 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 total, the team collection 7309 records of 75 wild plants, 89 wild animals and 60 domestic 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 current habitat in northern Spain. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) was distributed across all major water bodies in Spain, but construction projects in these water bodies meant that eels were today trapped and confined to only Spanish estuaries.
But other discoveries have served to reinforce current knowledge. For example, some species believed to have originated in 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 in 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, from so that scientists can use its historical location to increase protections.
Some animals never arrived in the modern age. 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 zebras – which is also where modern zebras get their name – in 16th century questionnaires with mentions in historical documents from the 18th century, they realized that the animal n was not mentioned in later documents probably because it was going through its extinction at the time. “It was a living history of the extinction of this species,” Viana said.
María Portuondo, a retired science historian at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the study, warns that it is difficult to verify the authenticity of responses in questionnaires given the many translation steps. Not only were the original responses translated before they were written, but a Spanish overlord — a mayor, governor or parish priest — likely edited them as well, she said. And 20th-century historians likely edited the responses once again, translating and publishing more digestible versions of the questionnaire responses. “The Spanish translators, in their effort to make it intelligible in Spanish, might have translated the name as a wolf when it meant a panther,” Portuondo explained.
Viana acknowledges that even with the translations, it was “really difficult” in some cases to understand what the villagers were referring to, especially when using region-specific names. To counter this, the researchers scoured lists of synonyms and vernacular species names to identify the plant or animal being referenced.
Portuondo says other historians who might hope to use the ecological inventory might encounter similar problems. “So let’s say you’ve never seen a mongoose and someone described it to you as a ‘ferret, but a bit bigger’. You’d get the picture,” Portuondo explained. that for biologists today it matters whether the real animal of about 450 years ago was a ferret or a mongoose. This is the challenge of using questionnaires that are 450 years old!
For Rodrigues, who specializes in large-scale biodiversity conservation, the species compilation of this new study provides a starting point from which she can study ecosystems over time. She added that this study can give an idea of what nature really was and not what we might have assumed it was in the 16th century.
It is the hope of the researchers behind the dataset, that the inventory can help give scientists a broader picture of where the species existed. By doing this study, Viana and her team were able to paint a picture of individual species in the past, but they hope, over time, to also get a sense of how different species co-existed. And perhaps with better conservation efforts, some of those past relationships could be resurrected. “We can only imagine how the interaction between the main [animals] in the Iberian Peninsula could have been a thing of the past. Will we witness it again? Viana said.