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The human Pangaea

Written By: - Date published: 8:10 am, December 9th, 2020 - 16 comments
Categories: covid-19, Environment, health, science, tourism - Tags: , ,

Wikipedia describes the last super-continent as

Pangaea or Pangea (/pænˈdʒiːə/[1]) was a supercontinent that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras.[2][3] It assembled from earlier continental units approximately 335 million years ago, and it began to break apart about 175 million years ago.[4] In contrast to the present Earth and its distribution of continental mass, Pangaea was centred on the Equator and surrounded by the superoceanPanthalassa. Pangaea is the most recent supercontinent to have existed and the first to be reconstructed by geologists.

Wikipedia: “Pangaea

However that last statement isn’t really correct. Humans have created the most recent virtual super-continent. At least as far as species movement has been concerned world wide. We’ve picked up species from around the world and transplanted them almost everywhere else.

My dinner last night consisted of a beef steak (probably from domestication of wild aurochs in the mid-east) , Kumara (originally from South America), and broccoli (probably originally the Mediterranean). All were carried to New Zealand by humans. The Māori brought a kumara with then, and then took up the much larger cultivars after European settlement. The rest of my delicious meal (says the cook) were brought in by settlers.

Humans are effectively camping in NZ and outside of the natural ecology of our islands. Outside of survival exercises, in my 60 odd years living here, I’ve never eaten food that is native to NZ. Fern root is edible – but only if you’re starving. Native birds are protected because almost all of them can be regarded as close to extinction. With berries, between that native birds and the Australian possums, competition is too fierce for mere humans to get any.

New Zealand is probably an extreme example because of the way that the Zealandia continent plate is largely submerged and has been down to very small islands several times over the last 65 million years. Our ecological diversity is that of small islands.

Most of this is well known. What is less well obvious are the consequences at the micro-biological level – for humans and for entire genera of species.

For instance read a 2018 National Geographic article on frogs and other amphibians.

MANY OF THE world’s amphibians are staring down an existential threat: an ancient skin-eating fungus that can wipe out entire forests’ worth of frogs in a flash.

This ecological super-villain, the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has driven more than 200 amphibian species to extinction or near-extinction—radically rewiring ecosystems all over Earth.

“This is the worst pathogen in the history of the world, as far as we can tell, in terms of its impacts on biodiversity,” says Mat Fisher, an Imperial College London mycologist who studies the fungus.

Now, a global team of 58 researchers has uncovered the creature’s origin story. A groundbreaking study published in Science on Thursday reveals where and when the fungus most likely emerged: the Korean peninsula, sometime during the 1950s.

From there, scientists theorize that human activities inadvertently spread it far and wide—leading to amphibian die-offs across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

National Geographic: “Ground Zero of Amphibian ‘Apocalypse’ Finally Found

The significance of this is that amphibians have a significiant but still poorly understood effect on local ecosystems. They were almost everywhere, so much part of the background that it took some time to realise that there was a massive dieback going on.

In person, Bd infestations can look like biblical plagues. Each August, adult midwife toads in the French Pyrenees climb out of their birth lakes for the first time. The infected toads barely make it to shore. “They’ll do one last hop, and then they’ll expire in your hands,” says Fisher, one of the study’s coauthors. “You can walk the lakes—it’s just carpets of dead frogs.”

Similar die-offs started popping up in the 1970s, but researchers didn’t realize these “enigmatic declines” were a global phenomenon until the 1990s. In 1997, researchers first described Bdand within a decade, they had connected it to the slaughters. Meanwhile, Bd‘s killing spree continued. From 2004 to 2008, one site in Panama lost 41 percent of its amphibian species to the fungus.

Most of the once-mysterious slaughters are now attributed to the “Global Panzootic Lineage,” a lethal strain nicknamed BdGPL.

National Geographic: “Ground Zero of Amphibian ‘Apocalypse’ Finally Found

And there are potentially worse species of Bd from the same previously geographically limited area. There these diseases are in balance – probably because the affected species evolved alongside the pathogens. The problem is when they get moved by, usually by humans, into ecosystems that they didn’t evolve in and jump species.

In 2013, researchers identified B. salamandrivorans, a sister species of Bd known as Bsal. Its name translates to “salamander-devouring” for a reason. From 2009 to 2012, the fungus slashed Dutch fire salamander populations by more than 99 percent.

National Geographic: “Ground Zero of Amphibian ‘Apocalypse’ Finally Found

If all of this sounds horribly familiar to us these days – then it should. Humans are suffering the consequences of our virtual Pangaea super-continent of the rapid transit. A localised disease or one that jumps species gets spread by rapid travel and then causes pandemics.

The spread of species jumping Covid viruses across multiple species, including humans, is exactly the same wholesale killing process as Bd and happening for the same reasons. So far we have seen several closely related Covid diseases from SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19.

If this follows the course of pandemics in our history like smallpox or black death, we will probably see several more before the human population worldwide develops a population level immunity to that family of pathogens over the coming decades.

The problem is that there are a lot of families of viruses, fungi, bacteria, and prions around, and that is before getting into trying to count the species. As a species who appears to be committed to going everywhere and sticking our noses into everything, we’ve just been damn lucky over the last century.

Perhaps it is time to start thinking about what kinds of precautions we should be taking to prevent the currently inevitable pandemic repeats. Like getting really serious about border controls (and ignoring our tourism addictions). Or spending more money on preemptive discovery of potential threats.

16 comments on “The human Pangaea ”

  1. Robert Guyton 1

    I guess the situation we find ourselves in now (as described by LPRENT) was inevitable; how could it have been otherwise – we're clever devils, us humans and can't/didn't resist the temptation to try everything, go everywhere. We've forced enormous change across the globe and beyond; from dead-frog-filled ponds to junk-littered space and the issue is an on-going, cumulative, worsening one.

    I was particularly hard-hit when the chytrid fungus was first reported, having been fascinated by frogs for as long as I can remember, catching and keeping them, crouching beside ponds watching them for hours on end, reading about them, collecting models of them and so on, and on, and on (my parents would have said) but only now learned of the "salamander-devouring" fungus (thanks, LPRENT!) and so am absorbing that bad news now. When I go out into my forest garden, I thrill to the birds there; tui, bellbird, fantail and others, but wonder, why are there so few? Where are the kokako, the huia, the laughing owl, the pouaki? That's not even thinking about the gecko that once would have been prolific here, perhaps living alongside of the tiny, silent native frogs that now eke out their existence on a few off-shore islands. Bats, tuatara; don't even think about it, I tell myself.

    I guess the question is, was the game lost the moment we started down this track of expanding our interests in the world, or are we enabled, by the same braininess that brought us here, to do something about the seemingly deadly situation we've created?

    And I wonder too, where the answer to that question comes from; our heads or our hearts?

    Presuming, of course, there is an answer.

  2. WeTheBleeple 2

    The palette of plants at our disposal has greatly increased our potential to create human inhabited paradise, while the invasives that arrived alongside more desirable species threaten to make any effort at 'taming nature' an arduous task.

    While a concerted focus on the natural world is desirable, I'm sure nature would prefer to avoid the gaze of man and his machinations right now.

    We have Eden at our fingertips and accountants on our backs.

    The price of ecosystem services must be factored into accounting, as it stands industries accounting of their activities is dishonest and skewed to support more destruction.

    Only when people and planet are more important than celebrity and money will we solve our problems (in a sustainable manner).

    • kejo 2.1

      The clash between the laws of Physics (fixed) and the seemingly more powerful laws of commerce (ever manipulated) is not much recognised. It seems to me that the laws of ..natural systems should be taught as a foundation subject at university. I have never met anybody with a double degree in Physics and Commerce. They could be a severely conflicted person. Regards, Keith

      • WeTheBleeple 2.1.1

        I do like this thinking. Environmental science was the closest I saw to common sense at uni, where they looked at ecology with mankind as a component. I also liked that they sourced information widely rather than peer reviewed work only.

        Environmental science mostly churns out advisors for larger scale construction and industrial efforts. These advisers might slow, but rarely halt, environmental destruction.

        The person with the knowledge is rarely ever the boss. Only laws can stop bosses from making final calls that go against wiser employees.

        Or, as you suggest, wiser bosses. If only.

  3. Craig H 3

    A reduction in international travel looks essential to me and international tourism should be first cab off the rank in that.

  4. JanM 4

    "I’ve never eaten food that is native to NZ". I grow and eat NZ spinach and occasionally drink kawakawa tea

    • UncookedSelachimorpha 4.1

      A lot of fish and shellfish consumed in NZ are also native species.

      But a good observation that there is very little native terrestrial food consumed. Pukeko are an exception, as are muttonbirds (only sort of terrestrial!).

  5. cathy-o 5

    i went to the Mary Dreaver lecture in Onehunga a couple of weeks ago or so. Siouxsie Wiles was the speaker. Totally fascinating, i would never have imagined anything like Bioluminescent Superbugs, but that is her field.

    as many people have warned us, more pandemics are inevitable. and as we have also been warned we are running out of antibiotics.

    a thing that stayed with me from the lecture is the chronic underfunding of Infectious Diseases research. seems a bit odd doesn't it, given Covid-19 and so on

    here's the link for donations


  6. greywarshark 6

    Myrtle Rust – part of the march of diseases that are killing off us and various of our icon species.

    "The disease is a threat to the important and substantial mānuka and kānuka honey industry. Using the new app to accurately identify species of Myrtaceae in New Zealand will make it easier to monitor and report cases of myrtle rust.

    "By using the key, anyone, from farmers and trampers to gardeners and park users, will be able to identify plants to check for and report the tell-tale yellow spores, and diseased leaves," said Dawson.

    The NZ Myrtaceae Key is available from the Google Play store and the iPhone app store as a mobile app suitable for undertaking identifications in the field, or through a web-based browser hosted by Manaaki Whenua.

    War of the Worlds H G Wells? Are the tiny things more fitted to survive than we bigger things?

    The Martians (also known as "Molluscs" or "Sarmaks") are a race of aliens from the planet Mars, who tried to invade Earth when their own homeworld became an inhospitable, frozen desert. Despite their primitive appearance, their intelligence and technology far exceeded our own prior to the invasion…

    The Martians on Earth are eventually killed by earth-borne bacteria, of which their immune systems couldn't cope due to having destroyed diseases on their home world of Mars. https://waroftheworlds.fandom.com/wiki/Martian

  7. Stuart Munro 7

    It's been going on for awhile – most folk aren't aware of the keystone role chestnuts once played in US forest ecology – again, wiped out by human introduced fungal disease from Asia. There is some hope of a GE'd cure, but we ain't there yet.

    • Robert Guyton 7.1

      For the chestnuts, more hope from the very, very few trees that survived and the "minders" who are quietly multiplying them again. I suspect our kauri will need that some sort of saving. Localisesd seed saving and propagation is the longer-lasting insurance against extinctions; ge just doesn't cut it for me, nor do cryogenic seed vaults. Give the people the material, let them weave stories around them and coupled with the plants will to survive, we'll enjoy success.

      • Stuart Munro 7.1.1

        GE may be appropriate in this case – Asian chestnuts resist the blight. There are reports of centuries old ancient chestnut groves with surviving roots, perenially losing fresh foliage to the blight as they put them out. The Asian chestnut is a much smaller tree, not the forest giant. There are other efforts to breed resistance – thus far not successful. It's like they lost their kauri.

        American Chestnut Recovery Strategy | Ontario.ca

    • WeTheBleeple 7.2

      In NZ we have the Kauri under threat, also a keystone species. However, the phytophthora responsible may have been here for some time. This lends weight to the theory some environmental factor is responsible. Some aspect of land use change to pasture and pine favors the pathogen compared to kauri forest soils. Then we traipse it in.


      Plants are not the only species affected by imbalances in soil microbes. The practice of ingesting small amounts of soil microbiota from our air and diet is considered an immune primer, but what manner of soil is being ingested by humans today?

      Invasive organisms only arise when they have a niche to get a foothold in. Often they'll sit till something disturbs the environment and then they proliferate. Ploughs, salts, cides, clearance all disturb microbial communities.

      It stands to reason part of the solution to microbial invasion is ecosystem restoration.

  8. Phillip ure 8

    sometimes the body of a post does not appear on my phone..

    this is one of those times..

  9. RedLogix 9

    From a strict evolutionary perspective maybe as many of 99% of all creatures who ever lived are extinct. Change is the constant feature of this landscape, and disease an ancient enemy; this human pangea being but one very recent event. There are two broad responses to change; one is to avoid it, the other to confront it. Each carries it's own risk/reward.

    Avoiding change, attempting to withdraw and isolate is an excellent short-term strategy. Initially at least, any new threat is poorly understood therefore minimising engagement is the correct action. But longer term it's a very poor response, the lack of learning and adaptation leads to stagnation and increasing vulnerability over time.

    Confronting change is of course the high risk option initially; one never knows whether something new is benign or deadly, so losses will be inevitable. Yet longer term the survivors of this strategy will learn and adapt sooner, will become more competitive and less vulnerable over time.

    (Ideally a species will combine the best of both strategies, and in a very broad sense this is part of why humans have been so successful, the feminine tends toward avoiding risk, the masculine toward confronting it, so in combination we adapt quickly with minimal losses … but this is a tangent to my point.)

    In essence this acknowledges the OP's core argument, that all change and in this instance an anthropomorphic one induced by the human propensity to travel across otherwise relatively isolated biological zones, is inducing entirely unintended pandemics with a largely unknown threat potential.

    The 'avoidance' strategy here would be to confine humans to cities, minimise our contact and impact on the wild world, allowing it time to find a new ecological balance. The 'confrontation' strategy would have us fully embrace a 'survival of the fittest' paradigm and accept that the anthropocene era we are in will mean both losses and victories, that sustaining a 'pristine natural world' in some sort of permanent stasis is an illusory goal.

    Without attempting any kind of prescriptive solution, I suggest that the intelligent approach would engage the best of both strategies; reducing and decoupling human dependency and impact on the natural world of photosynthesis, and invoking a transformation of our agricultural processes toward a more sophisticated harmonisation with living processes.

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