Lasting impacts of colonization on the study of biodiversity

Lasting impacts of colonization on the study of biodiversity

Colonization had immense repercussions on the economic, social, medical sectors and, as a result, on human populations. The consequences remain regardless of the time passed, and often in areas unknown to the general public. Asking the question of the impact on the way scientists approach biodiversity today is particularly significant.



Western colonial empires in 1945

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Increasing species dispersal

Plants and animals disperse spontaneously depending on the climate, environmental characteristics, as well as the socio-economic conditions of the regions. Humans have, throughout their history, voluntarily or unintentionally transported large quantities of species and influenced this distribution. Over time, species imported into certain regions ended up being naturalized and considered local, leading to a homogenization of diversity across the globe.

The establishment of European colonies led to an acceleration in the transport of plants, animals and diseases across the globe. Even today, traces of the great colonial empires such as the United Kingdom or Germany can be found in the plant composition of the countries they occupied. The most strategically important territories, such as commercial areas or administrative centers, as well as those that have been colonized by the same nation for longer periods, have more similar plant species between them. Many records of newly introduced plant species were made during the 19th century, particularly following waves of colonization of North America and the creation of acclimatization societies. In comparison, temperate Asia, which was not colonized by Europeans, shows a very low rate of exotic species over its area.


It is not just simple trips to colonized territories that have impacted the dispersal of species, but also a desire to disseminate and highlight species considered exotic by European peoples. Moreover, in certain zones which remained very isolated phylogenetically as in Australasia, the new territories arranged by the colonists were more favorable to the exotic species than to the local fauna and flora. Native species became very specific to the local climate and were therefore not necessarily well adapted to the new development of these spaces.


A generational amnesia that limits our understanding of the past

This results in forgetting of the past environmental state over time. It plays a significant role in the conservation of natural environments, because we need to know what an ecosystem looked like in order to restore it. The consequences of colonization might seem anecdotal but reveal significant changes in the environment and biodiversity of colonized countries that are not necessarily taken into account in ecosystem restoration work in the face of climate change.

Today there is a need to consider the perception of indigenous populations to better understand the reintroduction of these species into the ecosystem. The transmission that has been made in their culture can partly compensate for the generational amnesia of biologists who have not necessarily studied the arrival of new species in this environment. The knowledge of local populations makes it possible to look at conservational biology in a different light.

It is essential to be concerned with their relationship to these introduced species within the framework of conservation ecology measures. Indigenous peoples manage more lands than just the protected areas . Cultural values must be considered as full parameters of our vision of biodiversity.

Parrot Hunting in Mauritius by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1601

Source: Wikimedia Commons



Impacts on the study of ecology in less developed territories

There is a clear link between the acquisition of knowledge and the state of wealth and political stability of a country (mainly in North America and Western Europe). The so-called “developing” countries (and a fortiori those which have undergone colonization) are less represented in international scientific research and suffer from scientific colonialism. This (parachute or helicopter research) results in researchers from developed countries going to less developed countries to obtain scientific knowledge without collaborative work with local scientists and populations (see Paleontology and Colonial History: Is the Past Really Behind Us? by Victor Cabocel). This phenomenon is even more obvious in ecology and in the study of biodiversity since the largest hotspots of biodiversity are in developing countries. In comparison, the number of species records per km2 is higher in countries with high GDP and neighboring countries, which does not necessarily correspond to the relative biodiversity of these countries. Wealth, language (including a high proportion of English speakers), geographic location, and security all impact the study and collection of new data. We can as an example take the data collected by the citizen science application iNaturalist, which shows a clear emphasis on North America and Europe.



Even today, continental scientists use certain islands and archipelagos as biological laboratories and "replications" of experiments without considering the human and social context of these places. Conversely, Caribbean museums lack specimens and are dependent on the continents whose collections they visit. We can also note a brain drain from developing countries, especially for researchers at the start of their careers who lack professional offers and lead to a loss of local expertise. They need to leave their country for more developed ones, which is called “brain drain”.


Observation of vascular plants using the iNaturalist app

Source: Wolf et al., 2022 (Nature Ecology & Evolution)


We need to stop believing that the natural sciences are unbiased because we don't study humans directly. It is accepted that our species has colonized the whole of our planet, as well as its own congeners. Denying it in our studies will not make us do more “technical” science, but on the contrary risks hiding an important part of scientific reality from us. The increase in international collaborations and respect for the territories studied are key points for a more human and richer science to come.



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January 18, 2023

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