Inferior Faunas

I mentioned South American paleontologists defending the honor of their extinct animals, and pointed  out how stupid that is. There are many similar cases: Jefferson vs Buffon on the wimpiness of North American mammals (as a reader pointed out),  biologists defending the prowess of marsupials in Australia (a losing proposition) , etc.

So, we need to establish the relative competitive abilities of different faunas and settle this, once and for all.

Basically, the smaller and more isolated, the less competitive.  Pretty much true for both plants and animals.

Islands do poorly. Not just dodos: Hawaiian species, for example, are generally losers: everything from outside is a threat.

Next up from islands is Australia: still losers. The only invasive species I can think of that originated in Australia is the brushtail possum – and it invaded New Zealand. That’s like  a dwarf beating up a midget.  Birds can be an exception – they aren’t really isolated, if they have good powers of flight.  Some say that crows originated in Australia. By the way, there is a chance that penguins originated in New Zealand.  I suspect that NZ’s faunal backwardness might have aided penguin evolution, for reasons that I leave as an exercise for my readers.

South America: not as embarrassing as Australia, where the local predators are out-competed by house cats, but South America’s only competitive mammal export is the nutria, as far as I know.  The locals did poorly in the big interchange with North America, after the formation of Panama.

North America has had lots of contact with Eurasia, is fairly big, hasn’t really been isolated. Important lineages like horses and camels originated in North America.  That said, some elements of the North American biome seem uncompetitive – seems like freshwater fish are pretty vulnerable to invaders.  And Eurasian steppe imports do pretty well – things like tumbleweed and cheatgrass.

Africa was an island continent for a long time: although some of the Afrotheria have done well, particularly elephants,  most have not. As far as I know, there was only the one mammalian lineage in old Africa, which may have limited  local competition.

Eurasia: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.  the two biggest placental clades, Euarchontoglires and Lauriasiatheria apparently originated in Lauriasia (Eurasia plus North America) .  Between them, they account for more than 95% of placental mammal species.

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60 Responses to Inferior Faunas

  1. j says:

    Geography is destiny?

  2. MawBTS says:

    Next up from islands is Australia: still losers. The only invasive species I can think of that originated in Australia is the brushtail possum – and it invaded New Zealand.

    How about the crown of thorns starfish? There’s been outbreaks off the coast of Mexico and South America.

  3. John Hostetler says:

    Geography is indeed destiny. Even for humans.

    Diamond was half right, but had too much tribal ideological baggage to get the other half (similarly blinkered as those biologists rooting for their home fauna).

    It’s not Diamond’s one step: geography strongly influences culture, it’s a two-step: geography strongly influence genes, which strongly influence culture.

    Tumbleweed and cheatgrass are not the only Eurasian steppe imports to do well in NA – there’s this other import from the same steppe that eventually invaded most of the world and created almost everything that’s highly useful, beautiful and human for the last few millennia.

    Diamond’s idea of fiercer competition within latitudinal strips than within longitudinal is highly relevant here. Take a great east-west stretch of steppe. Fight it out over the most fertile part and may the best genes win. Diamond’s only major problem is he’s allergic to the idea of recent human evolution (well, with his doublethink, there’s probably one group he could except).

    • Bruce says:

      Isn’t there another two-step? Geography influences culture, which strongly influences genes.

      • Jerome says:

        Diamond certainly thinks so. He said in the introduction to G, G & S that his friends in New Guinea are genetically superior to the Valley Girls in his classes, because of generations of casual murder of strangers.

      • John Hostetler says:

        Sure. I guess an example is Fertile Crescent geography influencing seed-gathering culture and giving rise to farming, thus selecting for those farmer genes (aka genes for natural slaves ruled by natural despots).

        • Actually the most competitive human beings today are those who evolved in highly overcrowded, exogamous, K-selected conditions, in areas far away from the chaotic r-selection caused by steppe warfare.

          If you come from Western Europe or East Asia, or are a South Asian upper caste, then you are the descendant of aristocratic, conscientious farmers mostly. Those who didn’t survive died of malnutrition and disease, or when they were kids.

          All the areas of Eurasia today close to the steppe from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan, and the steppe itself, have undergone selection and cultural adaptation that inures their society to constant warfare. This repeated brutalization unfortunately did not make them competitive in modernized capitalist society. Just look at Russia, Saudi Arabia or the Pashtuns/Kalash, or compare northern India to south India, or North China to South China/Japan+Korea.

  4. j says:

    Horrific East Asian jellyfish is invading the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal. Eastern Mediterranean fisheries are already devastated. Seems to me that with the years, all inland fisheries and maybe the Atlantic too will be colonized. They are uneatable, and that may be one of their competitive advantage.

    • MawBTS says:

      “Evolve to be shitty to eat” is a pretty devastating evolutionary strategy. I’m amazed we’re able to eat anything.

      My dad used to cull aged, withered cattle in Burke, Queensland. One time he actually tried to eat one. His advice to me if I am ever in that situation is “feed the cow to a dog. Then, eat the dog.”

      • Ursiform says:

        “I’m amazed we’re able to eat anything.” Well, first we invented fire. Then we invented selective breeding. We have adapted to both inventions. No great mystery why we can eat what we eat.

      • dearieme says:

        Americans get round that problem with the burger.

      • melendwyr says:

        It’s quite difficult for an organism to make itself truly non-nutritious. Species that managed it generally tend to be exploited by specialized approaches – like woody plants, and the various creatures which have found ways to digest cellulose.

        Lots of organisms don’t bother devoting resources to making tissues that are unappealing or poisonous, and just grow and/or reproduce very rapidly instead.

    • BurplesonAFB says:

      I feel like I’m reading educationrealist

  5. j says:

    Following Greg’s logic, the largest fresh-water tropical rivers are in South America and their fish should be superior. It follows that the literally bloodthirsty piranha will inherit the planet’s rivers and lakes.

    • You should see what is happening in the Sepik River, PNG, where some idiot who has learned nothing from a few hundred years of intentionally introducing invasive species going wrong has, within the last 10 years, introduced an Amazonian fish and basically destroyed the river….

      • j says:

        Sometimes we captured piranha (locally called palometa) in the Parana River, and they are eatable. About jellyfish, it is eaten in China, but not by me.

  6. MawBTS says:

    Wait, we forgot about one really successful invasive species from Africa.


  7. Patrick Boyle says:

    When I was young we used to have midget wrestling. But in fact most of the so-called midgets were in fact dwarfs. I believe that in a fair MMA type fight a dwarf will always beat a midget. Maybe I’m wrong.

    I was going to write a comment on Diamond but by 8:00 AM (West Coast) there are already more than a dozen Diamond comments, so I’m reduced to midget comments. I’ve recently read all the Diamond books and many of the anti-Diamond books. He’s fading as an intellectual punching bag. He’s too obviously wrong on too many subjects to remain any fun.

    • MawBTS says:

      He’s fading as an intellectual punching bag. He’s too obviously wrong on too many subjects to remain any fun.

      Oh man, you reminded me of the guys on reddit’s /r/badhistory board. GGS is one of their most hated books. Why? Because it’s “paternalistic” and “Eurocentric”, and gives the impression that Spanish technology was superior to Native American technology.

      I’m not joking about that last part. I actually saw someone make the claim that the Aztec obsidian-edged weapons were “equal but different” to the Spanish steel weapons.

      I kept waiting for someone to point out to this clown that obsidian was known in the old world, too. The Egyptians used obsidian-tipped spears and arrowheads in the pre-dynastic period, but it mostly fell out of favor with the advent of copper and bronze.

      The Egyptians would rather use copper and bronze than obsidian. And you want to talk about obsidian being as good as Toledo steel??

  8. Richard Sharpe says:

    Is this really about a different, more specific discussion?

  9. Robert Ford says:

    Here in Michigan, I spent a great deal of this past summer spraying massive amounts of very highly concentrated roundup on Japanese knotweed that had spread all over the neighborhood. That plant scares me. It’s extremely hard to kill and can reproduce basically from one molecule from any part of the plant. we have to watch out for those Asian carp too 🙂

  10. kastalpo says:

    Looking at things in a general continental form is great, and I’ve previously thought about the things mentioned in this post a lot. Reading this got me thinking more about it, though, and one interesting thing to note are what one might call “climatic islands,” or areas of land within a continent that differ from the majority of the land around it. For example, since North America has a history of being connected to Eurasia, as was mentioned, its fauna has a better chance of competing with introduced wildlife. However, there are places within North America that have been easily colonized by a wide range of invasive species, due to its climatic isolation compared with the rest of the continent. Although it is technically not an island–being physically connected to the rest of the continent–it is isolated and unique in its climate and/or geography, just like an island would be.

    One example in North America would be Florida. There are a ton of plant species that have become invasive there, as well as animal species. The animal species that come to mind are mainly reptiles–the Burmese python, green iguana, Nile monitor, etc. These Asian, South American, and African natives fare well in the warm and humid climate Florida provides, but these species would never have a chance at expanding their range northward in the near future. As soon as temperatures got too cold in the winter, their geographic ranges would have to end. Even if a huge population of one of these species were dropped off just a couple hundred miles to the north, they’d have no chance of hanging on, yet they are completely prolific that many miles to the south. Florida’s climate is unique in regards to everything to its north, being on a peninsula on the gulf. It has plenty of native reptile species, but these species evolved to be inferior fauna, or “genetic losers,” since they had no competition from invaders from the rest of the continent. Because until recently, there were no Northern reptiles that had a chance of dominating them. In that sense, Florida is almost an island, when it comes to its fauna diversity. I’m sure plenty of other “climatic island” examples such as Florida exist throughout the world, such as in Mountain ranges where species become isolated for a long period of time.

    So really when it comes to a foreign species being introduced to a new continent, an animal that would usually be a “loser” might become a winner if it made it to the right area, and vice versa, even if it was within a continent that normally would spell the opposite.

    Of course, these all have to do with climatic conditions rather than direct competition of genetic adaptability. It’s not like when two genetically unrelated species from two different continents compete for the same niche. There will always be one true winner in that situation. But for example if Burmese pythons were better adapted to cold, there’s a chance that they could outcompete Northern snake species until they were dominant. So this begs the question, if any of these nonnative invasive species introduced to a climatic island ever evolve into subspecies that can survive in the conditions of the rest of the continent, will they displace native species? They are limited by simple weather conditions now, but what about in the distant future? As long as one of these genetic losers have one stronghold in the continent, they have a chance of becoming the new winners. I wonder how many species that are now found all over a continent have started out this way, millions of years ago or however long.

  11. oldmiseryguts says:

    How about vegetation? I think that the Australian eucalyptus has proved to be a bit of a world citizen quite easily.

  12. The somewhat isolated areas, Australia, South America, Africa, have done pretty well at poisons. Rather defensive, but effective nonetheless. Viruses, OTOH, seem to do well originating in the fierce competition of Eurasia. Also, humans coming out of Eurasian, competitive contexts (and short-distance ocean contact is as important as landmass considerations: NE Asia, coastal Southern Asia, Mediterranean, North Sea) seem to have a greater survivability than, say, the Amerinds who died at the rate of 90% upon contact with them.

    As for the AGW quelle horreur, I don’t mind weighing in that that there is warming; humans developing farms, domesticating animals, and burning coal seems to be part of it; but so what? It doesn’t follow that tipping points in ecology are more dangerous than tipping points in economy to the people currently alive and their immediate descendants – who are the only people that matter. The cultural and metaphysical assumptions behind other interpretations are too often neglected. Caring about who will be around 1000 years from now is a risible foundation for moral decisions. I don’t trust the self-observation and insight of people who pretend to care about that.

      • j says:

        From the biological viewpoint, Earth is now one large continent. “Superior” species are displacing the natives everywhere, and each year dozens of species are disappearing. Natural reserves and conservation efforts seem useless, life’s diversity is impoverished fast. Extinguished and extinguishing species cannot be saved, resuscitated mammoths and dynosaurs and Denosovans are fated to be outcompeted and be extinguished once more. That’s life.

  13. dearieme says:

    “The only invasive species I can think of that originated in Australia is the brush tail possum”: we have some wallaby colonies in Britain. But, of course, we are wolf-free.

    • MawBTS says:

      Maybe we should distinguish between “soft invasive species” (animals that exist because they’re cute and we humor them) and “hard invasive species” (pests that we absolutely cannot get rid of, like cane toads and rabbits).

  14. Hermy says:

    At a park near the University of Chicago, are hundreds (thousands?) of smallish, green parrots — monk parrots?? — which were released by one of the biologists on campus, or so the myth goes. They have colonized the trees building huge piles of stick-nests which the city removes, occasionally, to no avail.

    • dearieme says:

      London is now home to parakeets, which seem to be one of MawBTS’s “hard invasive species”.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        A flock of large green parakeets has been nesting near the Museum of Science and Industry in wintry Chicago for quite a few decades. That’s pretty impressive for a tropical-looking bird.

        • O'Nonymous says:

          There used to be a green parakeet, the Carolina parakeet, native to the eastern US, but it went extinct a century ago. Its range extended right about to Chicago. Maybe the intruders are just filling the vacant parakeet niche?

  15. corax says:

    Perhaps penguins were able to evolve their excellent aquatic abilities -and as a result, flightlessness because of a dearth of mammalian predators in New Zealand. Penguins would be too vulnerable during their nesting season if they were subject to the attacks from predatory mammals like canines. There seems to have been a significant number of flightless birds in New Zealand.
    On another note, here is a Eurasian plant called the Dog Strangling Vine that is really dominating open land here in Ontario. As with many invasive plants, they seem to have just sat there for the first seventy years. Now they have reached several hundred miles south and are dominating most unmowed parks and ravines in the Toronto area. It does not climb as high as Kudzu but it is very vigourous.

  16. Karl Zimmerman says:

    South American invasive fauna did rather better than you’re crediting it. Opossums got into Central America, with the Virginia Opossum spreading to the Canadian border. Xenarthra seemed to do just fine in North America as well, faring fine against Eurasian and North American clades – although of course minus the nine-banded armadillo none of them survived the Amerindians. Still, Megalonyx made it all the way to Alaska, and it’s plausible that in the absence of humans it would have eventually made it into Asia.

    If we want to include New World Monkeys and caviomorph rodents as South American endemics (since they rafted from Africa in the Miocene/Eocene respectively) there’s further examples of success. American Porcupines are of South American ancestry, capybaras made it into North America in the Pleistocene, and many other cavimorphs are found in Central America. New World Monkeys, of course, also colonized Central America.

    Actually, looking at the history of faunal overturning in South America, it seems the only big losers initially were the Sparassodont carnivores and the Meridiungulate herbivores. Both were in terminal decline long before the Great American interchange. The former had been mostly out-competed by Terror Birds before any carnivorans (besides procyonids, which were not hypercarnivorous) made it into South America. The only family that remained was the thylacosmilids. And giant rodents and herbivorous xenarthrans had mostly out-competed the South American “ungulates.”

    When it comes down to it, the lack of competitiveness of megacarnivores isn’t surprising. All things considered, endothermic carnivores need to have a greater foraging territory, which means they have lower effective populations. Thus the pressures of insular (or even semi-insular) living will be the hardest on them.

    Bringing this back to the core subject of this blog, for this reason, I find it no wonder modern paleogenetics has found that archaics in northern Eurasia were rather inbred. I actually wonder if this was a common dynamic in early human evolution. Africa and the warm climes would generally host larger, denser populations, which during warm periods would spread north. Then as climates worsened there would be genetic isolation and dropping population size, which would promote inbreeding. Thus fitness would drop, even though some favorable mutations arose. Eventually another African (or near-African) group would spread out and be able to replace the inbred archaics – and through minor admixture, be able to take in the useful adaptations and filter out most of the genomic dreck due merely to inbreeding or drift – thus becoming more fit than their original source population.

  17. dearieme says:

    No, but I like ice cream.

  18. dearieme says:

    The above was intended as a reply to

    “dearieme, i must to ask: have you italian origin of any grade?”

  19. Wanderer says:

    Some people proclaim that what our schools fail to do is to teach critical thinking, but I wonder if it can even be taught?

    The number of people who are willing to simply follow the dominant ideas seems staggering, and so I suspect that a propensity for critical thinking is largely genetic.

    On another topic, does anyone have any suggestions on papers that demonstrate that the heritability of IQ is in the 50-80% range?

  20. Steve Sailer says:

    It’s like manufactured goods. Although I owned a wi-fi router made in Australia once, Australia isn’t that competitive in international markets for manufactured goods. The majority of Australian-manufactured products I’ve consumer have been cans of Foster’s Beer.

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