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Plant life on islands loses diversity when humans arrive

Recent research has uncovered a notable trend: human settlement significantly alters the uniqueness of island plants.

The study reveals that over the last 3,000 years, human migration to the South Pacific has led to a marked decrease in the diversity of plant species across various islands, a phenomenon scientists term ‘homogenization’.

Humanity’s impact on the natural world

This research was spearheaded by Dr. Nichola Strandberg of the University of Southampton, in collaboration with several international institutions.

Dr. Strandberg, reflecting on the study, notes, “Our study demonstrates that in small island groups, human occupation is a driving force behind the homogenization of flora.”

This finding highlights the profound impact human actions have on the natural world, especially in regions like the South Pacific.

Although the study focuses on this area, its implications could extend to the hundreds of thousands of other small islands globally.

How the study was conducted

The research team, comprising experts from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, meticulously analyzed fossil pollen records from 15 swamp and lake sites across 13 South Pacific islands.

By comparing the composition of plant life before and after human colonization, they were able to discern the extent of human influence on island ecosystems.

Historically, human migration to the South Pacific occurred in two waves. The initial migration, approximately 3,500 to 2,800 years ago, affected western Polynesia, Melanesia, and Samoa.

The subsequent wave, occurring around 1,000 to 700 years ago, saw human expansion to more remote islands, including French Polynesia, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hawaii, and Aotearoa (New Zealand). These islands had not been previously inhabited.

Island flora modified by invasive plants

The study found that human settlers quickly modified the local flora, introducing non-native plants and animals and engaging in activities such as agriculture, settlement building, and land clearing through fire.

These actions led to some plant species dwindling or facing extinction, reducing the distinctiveness of the plant species across these islands.

Interestingly, the study also observed that areas at higher elevations tended to retain more unique flora, likely due to less human habitation and impact in these regions.

Professor David Sear, who co-supervised the research alongside Professor Mary Edwards, Professor Peter Langdon, and Dr. Sandra Nogué, heads a broader project aimed at understanding the impact of climate and other natural disturbances on the migration and settlement of Pacific islands.

Commenting on the broader implications of the study, Professor Sear states, “The implications of this research are that human arrival rapidly impacted the floral communities on tropical islands that previously showed great variety in their native flora, owing to their dispersed and isolated locations.”

He further explains how the Polynesian and Lapita peoples reshaped their islands to support their populations, inadvertently homogenizing the previously diverse tropical island flora.

In summary, this research offers valuable insights for Pacific islanders. The study helps them understand how their ancestors adapted to climate changes and natural hazards, and the ways they altered the landscapes they inhabited.

These findings underscore the profound and lasting impact human activities have on our planet’s ecosystems, particularly in isolated and diverse regions such as the South Pacific islands.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.


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