European Animals The Major Part They Took In Forever Altering the Ecology of the Americas
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Although the Europeans presence in the Americas from 1492 to many years later caused drastic change in the environment, their part in forever altering the entire American ecosystem was minor when compared to the part of the true criminals: the European animals. The introduction of these European animals into the New World had the most destructive effects on the new environment and everlastingly altered the ecology of the Americas. During the time that pre-dated the arrival of the Europeans, the Americas remained basically untouched and prevailed as virgin land. The land was populated with not just American Indians, but also populated by vast numbers of plants and animals.
These inhabitants "lived, died, and bred alone for generation after generation, developing unique cultures and working out tolerances," that is up until 1492, when Columbus and the European conquerors invaded the harmonious land and instantaneously initiated the many long years of corruption. The arrival of the Europeans immediately brought drastic changes to the way things were previously done in the Americas; they "immediately set about to transform as much of the new world as possible into the old world." Because they were people who practiced mixed farming with a heavy emphasis on herding and because they saw only very few domesticated animals in the new land, the Europeans began the action of importing Old World domesticated animals, such as the pig, cow, and horse. This action could most definitely be described as "the greatest biological revolution in the Americas since the end of the Pleistocene era."
The Europeans had no idea as to what they unleashed upon the New World when they introduced their domesticated animals. Many of these animals flourished in the new environment beyond the wildest hopes of their European masters. The animals and their diseases "moved through the virgin lands of America faster than did the people who had brought them to the New World." By surpassing their masters, the animals became unstoppable, and their destruction was unfortunately boundless.
Pigs, for example, existed as one among the many animal groups that played such a significant role in the changes that wrought the ecology of the New World. Out of all of the imported animals, the pigs adapted quickest to the new environment.
Although useful to the Europeans as a main source of food in the new land, these animals soon became a more of a problem than a benefit. The pigs, which the Europeans brought over, thrived in their new environment. There was enough moisture, shade, and food for the pigs to survive, and hence caused their numbers to increase. An example of such an increase is when Hernando De Soto originally brought thirteen pigs with him to Florida in 1539, and three years later the original amount grew to an amazing sum of seven hundred. With the pig population increasing, food and space became a problem. The pigs would eat anything due to their omnivorous nature; therefor, they left the other minute animals with little or nothing to live off of. As a result, some of these smaller animals began to die out either from being hunted by the pig or from starvation. The pigs began to spread all over the Americas due to the ever-increasing size of their herds. Everywhere these pigs went they continued to eat and strip land of vegetation, leaving native animals and humans in deprivation.
Cows presented themselves as another contributor to the damage in the ecology of the New World. These animals, much like the pigs, thrived in their new environment and bred at unbelievable rates. In a report to his king, Alonzo de Zuazo wrote that the cows "were breeding two and three times a year in the salubrious environment of the New World [and] if thirty or forty cattle stray away… they will grow to three or four hundred in three or four years." While this cow population increased, they began to stray from Peru to Chile and from Paraguay to Tucuman; they strayed wherever "the grass was plentiful." The cow population, being as large and widespread as it was, began to cause a decline in vegetation due to their large consumption of the flora. Huge tracts of land were stripped of vegetation caused by the cows. This elimination initiated the starvation and deaths of the many indigenous herbivores of the Americas, and allowed invasive European vegetation to move in and overtake the native plant life. The elimination of the flora was not the only damage these herds inflicted; "the European animals doubtlessly transmitted to the native stock a devastating selection of animal diseases." All of these incursions caused the dreadful extinction of many sorts of native plants and animals.
Although cows and pigs were brought over primarily for their agricultural purposes, the horse, which also had damaging effect on the environment, was brought over for an entirely different purpose. The American Indians, who had never seen a horse before, were terrified of this new beast. Therefor, the primary purpose of the horse in the America's was to aid the Europeans in overpowering and taking over the New World and its inhabitants. However, this intention of providing aid soon became obsolete when the horses began to breed out of control of their own masters. Although the initial presence of the horse helped the Europeans greatly, it more importantly proved very costly to the land. The horses, as with the other animals, grew to numbers so vast that they began to migrate north, urged by "the smell of water and grass ahead." The horse population was so large that some herds covered entire plains; "nothing but the driest deserts, the snows of Canada, and the eastern woodlands stopped their advance." The herds that inhabited these vast lands not only destroyed the native flora but also simultaneously made more room for invasive European vegetation. Many native species of grasses were eaten so extensively that they befell to extinction.
One of the more noteworthy associations between the European animals and the New World ecology is that as the animal populations increased, American Indian populations decreased; "the spectacular rise in the population of domesticated animals in [the Americas] was accompanied by an equally spectacular decline in the Indian population." Since the American Indians lived off of the resources their land provided, they were in competition for food with these newly brought about animals. The European animals would wander into American Indian settlements and devour the gardens that these people depended on. Not only did these animals eat the food that the American Indians survived on, but they also carried animal viruses that killed many of the creatures upon which the American Indians relied.
When Columbus and the other Europeans first landed in the Americas, they were only the first invaders to a New World. The second wave of invaders was the animals they later brought with them; and, true to European temperament, they excelled in destroyed their surroundings. These animals were introduced to an environment where they had no predators, the climate encouraged population growth, and there was an abundance of food and space to live. Soon, these animals overran and ate clear huge tracts of land.
They were able to outnumber and overpower their American counterparts and the American Indians by taking food from them and out-breeding them thus taking up more on the native space. The numbers of these domesticated animals "burgeoned so rapidly, in fact, that doubtlessly they had much to do with the extinction of certain plants, animals, and even the Indians themselves, whose gardens they encroached upon." Therefor, these animals not only had a devastating effect on their new environment at that time, but also hugely and permanently altered the ecology of the Americas and thus marking their spot in history forever.
Alfred W. Crosby, "The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492". Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972