Biodiversity 450 years ago: which species have declined or been lost altogether?

An innovative study describes how species were in the 16th Century and the decline of biodiversity we’ve experienced since.
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Anyone hiking through the Iberian countryside 450 years ago would have come across a very different landscape and fauna than the one we see today. Declining biodiversity has caused the disappearance of hundreds of species. Did you know that in the 16th C. there were animals that looked like zebras in Spain? Or that eels were common in rivers up to 1,000 meters in altitude?

What will I learn from this article?


Stories the past tells about nature

Paintings are windows through which we can explore the past. Canvases on which hundreds of artists portray a very different reality to the one in which we live today. Carefully observing artworks from centuries ago, we begin to understand how customs and society have changed, technology has evolved, and also how the natural environment has been transformed.

Biodiversity decline is not something we can analyze in old paintings, however. We cannot forget that, although artists succeeded in capturing a part of reality, art responds to creative impulses and the esthetic desire of the person holding the brush.

Could we say that Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a canvas representative of how the world was in the 16th C? In the painting, we see an impressive bestiary made up of dozens of animals of all kinds. But not all are real. Many are imagined by the artist and others are representations of mythological creatures.

Spain is a curious case: we know the state of biodiversity at that time thanks to the Topographical Surveys. These describe Spanish villages and were compiled from questionnaires that were put to intelligent and interested people of the day. The questions embraced subjects such as population, religion, climate, health, architecture, customs and any other issue that could help chronicle the places that made up the Spanish kingdom. They also included questions about agriculture and natural resources which encouraged those surveyed to describe the vegetation and animals in their area.


“The Topographical Surveys broached subjects including population, religion, climate, health, architecture, customs, agriculture and natural resources”


Now a team of conservation biologists from Doñana–CSIC Biological Station have studied the ecological history highlighted by the Topographical Surveys. Their work, which focused on observing species in Spain in the 16th C., has been published by Ecology magazine.


How biodiversity has changed over 450 years

The species that crop up most in the Topographical Surveys are those that played a principal part in the diet of the time, like rabbits, partridges and hares. Wolves are also mentioned very regularly and, in the reports from the highlands, the Brown Bear and Iberian Lynx are often cited. The study is a window on what is happening planet-wide, in every place with its own particular features.

As for red and roe deer, and boar - key animals for hunting by the privileged classes - they are mentioned by nearby communities as being problematic. According to the survey registries, residents in the Madrid villages of El Pardo and Aranjuez complained of the damage the Royal Hunt was doing to cereal crops.

You could, it seems, make out, on the Southern Plains (la meseta sur) of the country, the last examples of encebros, the wild ass that gave its name to the African zebras and which was the hardiest of the many large European species (megafauna) to become extinct following the last Ice Age. The last mentions of these animals in the surveys correspond to villages in the province of Albacete. One of them tells of how encebras (females of the species) were “ash mares the color of weathered rat skin” which “come down often and destroy the wheat and crops sewn) and “run so fast no man can catch them”.

As for the biodiversity of rivers, the river shrimp is mentioned several times as a common food of the time. Noteworthy is the presence of eels, which, according to the Topographical Surveys, could be found in numerous rivers and up to altitudes of 1,000 meters above sea level. Today, they have disappeared completely from the areas mentioned in these documents.


“Eels could be found in numerous rivers and up to altitudes of 1,000 meters above sea level”


Analyzing the past, so as not to come to regret, what we might lose today

The work of this team of conservation biologists from Doñana–CSIC Biological Station gives us a good-quality freeze-frame of nature at a specific time and place in the 16th C. It also invites us to reflect on how biodiversity changes and how its loss and degradation impact on our lives. A window on what is happening planet-wide, in each place with its particular features.

We over-exploit more than 50,000 wild species to satisfy today’s lifestyle, according to estimates by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The organization has sounded the alarm on the dangers we are facing if we prioritize economic growth at the expense of protecting biodiversity.

Tackling the threats wild species and ecosystems face – such as overexploitation and climate change – is essential to arrive at a sustainable planet that can look back one day and not have to regret all the life it has lost.