Six or seven years ago, I read a relatively little known science fiction novel called Tuf Voyaging, written by an author extremely well known for his fantasy writing: George R.R. Martin. The book is actually a collection of short stories that had originally been published over the course of several years, and most of the stories follow the adventures of Haviland Tuf. That’s about as much as I can say without spoiling anything, except for the purposes of this post I do need to mention that quite a few of the stories in the novel are about ecological engineering and the introduction of biological controls to help solve different planets’ problems.
Even if you don’t like the more recently popular fiction by Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), I would recommend Tuf Voyaging just for its humor and commentary on environmentalism. The stories focused on human (or at least humanoid) interaction with–and often mismanagement of–nature are thought-provoking and reminiscent of certain aspects of Frank Herbert’s Dune. And if you do enjoy Martin’s writing, then this will be a cool opportunity toread some of his older work in a separate genre (Tuf was written through the late seventies and published in 1986, ten years before Game of Thrones).
But the main reason I bring up Tuf Voyaging is that while recently doing some online research on Jamaica, I read about a case of attempted biological control gone wrong. I was reminded of fictional cases of ecological engineering (which sometimes go wrong for the inhabitants of various planets in Tuf Voyaging), as well as other true, catastrophic stories of introduced species in the Galápagos and Patagonia.
The Jamaican story can be very briefly summed up: in the sixteenth century, as the island was being colonized by Europeans, rats were accidentally introduced from the ships on which they had been stowed away (this wasn’t the last time rats got away with this with human help). The rats caused all kinds of havoc over the next few hundred years, and eventually in the nineteenth century someone felt that a potential solution to the problem was to introduce another animal to eradicate the rats via predation. So in 1872 the small Indian mongoose, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources now ranks as one of the hundred worst invasive species in the world, was introduced to Jamaica, as it was to most other Caribbean sugar-producing islands (where snakes were also a big issue). On purpose.
Small Indian mongooses are generalist predators, which basically means that if the rats they were imported to eat were too tough to hunt, they could choose from many other potential prey, such as the relatively easy to catch Jamaican Petrel and Jamaican Pauraque. These two endemic species of bird, which nest on the ground, are now critically endangered and presumably extinct, due to both predation by introduced species like the mongoose and habitat loss.
Tomorrow, I’ll share the stories of beavers in southern Chile and Argentina, and blackberries and goats in the Galápagos Islands. You can read about the research project concerning the possibly extinct Jamaican subspecies of the Golden Swallow I’ll be a part of in January here. And if you haven’t already, please check out the rock bird artwork created by local kids in Tacacorí, Costa Rica! And vote!