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Discovering a 16th Century Ecosystem

Discovering a 16th Century Ecosystem

Above: A scene from "The Hunting Book of Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, Lord of Béarn", 14th century

The next time you notice something interesting, make sure to write it down. Why? Because it may come in handy 500 years later! A sixteenth century ecological survey commissioned by the then king of Spain has been used to reveal a vivid snapshot of the natural world of the era.

From 1574 to 1582, King Philip II sent surveyors across his territory, interviewing villagers on the local animal and plant life. These questions were designed by Phillip II in order for him to better understand just what exactly his kingdom looked like. But what might otherwise be a simple curiosity of history now provides an invaluable tool in tracing the evolutionary history of the region. 

By using this survey, scientists have been able to chart the area’s climate based on the shifting migrations of certain animals that appear in the survey but now live in other areas, such as the movement out of central Spain of the Iberian wolf. Some other animals that are extinct today appear within Philip’s record, shedding light on the animals’ disappearance. There's even some basic data on the change in climate from the 1500s to today!

Normally, scientists rely on geologic and chemical data to learn about the past, but thanks to this record they had first hand accounts to build on. This study’s unique approach presented a series of roadblocks–from contending with past mistranslation, to parsing the villager’s colloquialism. But it’s also an instance of the resourcefulness of scientists in understanding the past, using an historical artifact in a way its authors never would’ve imagined.

Check out more about the record and the study around it here!

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