Island Life/V

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[ 72 ]

CHAPTER V

THE POWERS OF DISPERSAL OF ANIMALS AND PLANTS

Statement of the general question of Dispersal—The Ocean as a Barrier to the Dispersal of Mammals—The Dispersal of Birds—The Dispersal of Reptiles—The Dispersal of Insects—The Dispersal of Land Mollusca—Great Antiquity of Land-shells—Causes favouring the Abundance of Land-shells—The Dispersal of Plants—Special adaptability of Seeds for Dispersal—Birds as agents in the Dispersal of Seeds—Ocean Currents as agents in Plant Dispersal—Dispersal along Mountain-chains—Antiquity of Plants as affecting their Distribution.

In order to understand the many curious anomalies we meet with in studying the distribution of animals and plants, and to be able to explain how it is that some species and genera have been able to spread widely over the globe, while others are confined to one hemisphere, to one continent, or even to a single mountain or a single island, we must make some inquiry into the different powers of dispersal of animals and plants, into the nature of the barriers that limit their migrations, and into the character of the geological or climatal changes which have favoured or checked such migrations.

The first portion of the subject—that which relates to the various modes by which organisms can pass over wide areas of sea and land—has been fully treated by Sir Charles Lyell, by Mr. Darwin, and many other writers, and it will only be necessary here to give a very brief notice of the best known facts on the subject, which will be further referred to when we come to discuss the [ 73 ] particular cases that arise in regard to the faunas and floras of remote islands. But the other side of the question of dispersal—that which depends on geological and climatal changes—is in a far less satisfactory condition, for, though much has been written upon it, the most contradictory opinions still prevail, and at almost every step we find ourselves on the battle-field of opposing schools in geological or physical science. As, however, these questions lie at the very root of any general solution of the problems of distribution, I have given much time to a careful examination of the various theories that have been advanced, and the discussions to which they have given rise; and have arrived at some definite conclusions which I venture to hope may serve as the foundation for a better comprehension of these intricate problems. The four chapters which follow this are devoted to a full examination of these profoundly interesting and important questions, after which we shall enter upon our special inquiry—the nature and origin of insular faunas and floras.

The Ocean as a Barrier to the Dispersal of Mammals.—A wide extent of ocean forms an almost absolute barrier to the dispersal of all land animals, and of most of those which are aerial, since even birds cannot fly for thousands of miles without rest and without food, unless they are aquatic birds which can find both rest and food on the surface of the ocean. We may be sure, therefore, that without artificial help neither mammalia nor land birds can pass over very wide oceans. The exact width they can pass over is not determined, but we have a few facts to guide us. Contrary to the common notion, pigs can swim very well, and have been known to swim over five or six miles of sea, and the wide distribution of pigs in the islands of the Eastern Hemisphere may be due to this power. It is almost certain, however, that they would never voluntarily swim away from their native land, and if carried out to sea by a flood they would certainly endeavour to return to the shore. We cannot therefore believe that they would ever swim over fifty or a hundred miles of sea, and the same may be said of all the larger mammalia. [ 74 ] Deer also swim well, but there is no reason to believe that they would venture out of sight of land. With the smaller, and especially with the arboreal mammalia, there is a much more effectual way of passing over the sea, by means of floating trees, or those floating islands which are often formed at the mouths of great rivers. Sir Charles Lyell describes such floating islands which were encountered among the Moluccas, on which trees and shrubs were growing on a stratum of soil which even formed a white beach round the margin of each raft. Among the Philippine Islands similar rafts with trees growing on them have been seen after hurricanes; and it is easy to understand how, if the sea were tolerably calm, such a raft might be carried along by a current, aided by the wind acting on the trees, till after a passage of several weeks it might arrive safely on the shores of some land hundreds of miles away from its starting-point. Such small animals as squirrels and field-mice might have been carried away on the trees which formed part of such a raft, and might thus colonise a new island; though, as it would require a pair of the same species to be thus conveyed at the same time, such accidents would no doubt be rare. Insects, however, and land-shells would almost certainly be abundant on such a raft or island, and in this way we may account for the wide dispersal of many species of both these groups.

Notwithstanding the occasional action of such causes, we cannot suppose that they have been effective in the dispersal of mammalia as a whole; and whenever we find that a considerable number of the mammals of two countries exhibit distinct marks of relationship, we may be sure that an actual land connection, or at all events an approach to within a very few miles of each other, has at one time existed. But a considerable number of identical mammalian families and even genera are actually found in all the great continents, and the present distribution of land upon the globe renders it easy to see how they have been able to disperse themselves so widely. All the great land masses radiate from the arctic regions as a common centre, the only break being at Behrings Strait, which is so shallow that a rise of less than a thousand feet would [ 75 ] form a broad isthmus connecting Asia and America as far south as the parallel of 60° N. Continuity of land therefore may be said to exist already for all parts of the world (except Australia and a number of large islands, which will be considered separately), and we have thus no difficulty in the way of that former wide diffusion of many groups, which we maintain to be the only explanation of most anomalies of distribution other than such as may be connected with unsuitability of climate.

The Dispersal of Birds.—Wherever mammals can migrate other vertebrates can generally follow with even greater facility. Birds, having the power of flight, can pass over wide arms of the sea, or even over extensive oceans, when these are, as in the Pacific, studded with islands to serve as resting places. Even the smaller land-birds are often carried by violent gales of wind from Europe to the Azores, a distance of nearly a thousand miles, so that it becomes comparatively easy to explain the exceptional distribution of certain species of birds. Yet on the whole it is remarkable how closely the majority of birds follow the same laws of distribution as mammals, showing that they generally require either continuous land or an island-strewn sea as a means of dispersal to new homes.

The Dispersal of Reptiles.—Reptiles appear at first sight to be as much dependent on land for their dispersal as mammalia, but they possess two peculiarities which favour their occasional transmission across the sea—the one being their greater tenacity of life, the other their oviparous mode of reproduction. A large boa-constrictor was once floated to the island of St. Vincent, twisted round the trunk of a cedar tree, and was so little injured by its voyage that it captured some sheep before it was killed. The island is nearly two hundred miles from Trinidad and the coast of South America, whence the reptile almost certainly came.[14] Snakes are, however, comparatively scarce on islands far from continents, but lizards are often abundant, and though these might also travel on floating trees, it seems more probable that there [ 76 ] is some as yet unknown mode by which their eggs are safely, though perhaps very rarely, conveyed from island to island. Examples of their peculiar distribution will be given when we treat of the fauna of some islands in which they abound.

The Dispersal of Amphibia and Fresh-water Fishes.—The two lower groups of vertebrates, Amphibia and fresh-water fishes, possess special facilities for dispersal, in the fact of their eggs being deposited in water, and in their aquatic or semi-aquatic habits. They have another advantage over reptiles in being capable of flourishing in arctic regions, and in the power possessed by their eggs of being frozen without injury. They have thus, no doubt, been assisted in their dispersal by floating ice, and by that approximation of all the continents in high northern latitudes which has been the chief agent in producing the general uniformity in the animal productions of the globe. Some genera of Batrachia have almost a world-wide distribution; while the tailed Batrachia, such as the newts and salamanders, are almost entirely confined to the northern hemisphere, some of the genera spreading over the whole of the north temperate zone. Fresh-water fishes have often a very wide range, the same species being sometimes found in all the rivers of a continent. This is no doubt chiefly due to the want of permanence in river basins, especially in their lower portions, where streams belonging to distinct systems often approach each other and may be made to change their course from one to the other basin by very slight elevations or depressions of the land. Hurricanes and water-spouts also often carry considerable quantities of water from ponds and rivers, and thus disperse eggs and even small fishes. As a rule, however, the same species are not often found in countries separated by a considerable extent of sea, and in the tropics rarely the same genera. The exceptions are in the colder regions of the earth, where the transporting power of ice may have come into play. High ranges of mountains, if continuous for long distances, rarely have the same species of fish in the rivers on their two sides. Where exceptions occur, it is often due to the great [ 77 ] antiquity of the group, which has survived so many changes in physical geography that it has been able, step by step, to reach countries which are separated by barriers impassable to more recent types. Yet another and more efficient explanation of the distribution of this group of animals is the fact that many families and genera inhabit both fresh and salt water; and there is reason to believe that many of the fishes now inhabiting the tropical rivers of both hemispheres have arisen from allied marine forms becoming gradually modified for a life in fresh water. By some of these various causes, or a combination of them, most of the facts in the distribution of fishes can be explained without much difficulty.

The Dispersal of Insects.—In the enormous group of insects the means of dispersal among land animals reach their maximum. Many of them have great powers of flight, and from their extreme lightness they can be carried immense distances by gales of wind. Others can survive exposure to salt water for many days, and may thus be floated long distances by marine currents. The eggs and larvæ often inhabit solid timber, or lurk under bark or in crevices of logs, and may thus reach any countries to which such logs are floated. Another important factor in the problem is the immense antiquity of insects, and the long persistence of many of the best marked types. The rich insect fauna of the Miocene period in Switzerland consisted largely of genera still inhabiting Europe, and even of a considerable number identical, or almost so, with living species. Out of 156 genera of Swiss fossil beetles no less than 114 are still living; and the general character of the species is exactly like that of the existing fauna of the northern hemisphere in a somewhat more southern latitude. There is, therefore, evidently no difficulty in accounting for any amount of dispersal among insects; and it is all the more surprising that with such powers of migration they should yet be often as restricted in their range as the reptiles or even the mammalia. The cause of this wonderful restriction to limited areas is, undoubtedly, the extreme specialisation of most insects. They have become so exactly adapted to one set of conditions, that when [ 78 ] carried into a new country they cannot live. Many can only feed in the larva state on one species of plant; others are bound up with certain groups of animals on whom they are more or less parasitic. Climatal influences have a great effect on their delicate bodies; while, however well a species may be adapted to cope with its enemies in one locality, it may be quite unable to guard itself against those which elsewhere attack it. From this peculiar combination of characters it happens, that among insects are to be found examples of the widest and most erratic dispersal and also of the extremest restriction to limited areas; and it is only by bearing these considerations in mind that we can find a satisfactory explanation of the many anomalies we meet with in studying their distribution.

The Dispersal of Land Mollusca.—The only other group of animals we need now refer to is that of the air-breathing mollusca, commonly called land-shells. These are almost as ubiquitous as insects, though far less numerous; and their wide distribution is by no means so easy to explain. The genera have usually a very wide, and often a cosmopolitan range, while the species are rather restricted, and sometimes wonderfully so. Not only do single islands, however small, often possess peculiar species of land-shells, but sometimes single mountains or valleys, or even a particular mountain side, possess species or varieties found nowhere else upon the globe. It is pretty certain that they have no means of passing over the sea but such as are very rare and exceptional. Some which possess an operculum, or which close the mouth of the shell with a diaphragm of secreted mucus, may float across narrow arms of the sea, especially when protected in the crevices of logs of timber; while in the young state when attached to leaves or twigs they may be carried long distances by hurricanes.[15] Owing to their exceedingly slow motion, [ 79 ] their powers of voluntary dispersal, even on land, are very limited, and this will explain the extreme restriction of their range in many cases.

Great Antiquity of Land-Shells.—The clue to the almost universal distribution of the several families and of many genera, is to be found, however, in their immense antiquity. In the Pliocene and Miocene formations most of the land-shells are either identical with living species or closely allied to them, while even in the Eocene almost all are of living genera, and one British Eocene fossil still lives in Texas. Strange to say, no true land-shells have been discovered in the Secondary formations, but they must certainly have abounded, for in the far more ancient Palæozoic coal measures of Nova Scotia two species belonging to the living genera Pupa and Zonites have been found in considerable abundance.

Land-shells have therefore survived all the revolutions the earth has undergone since Palæozoic times. They have been able to spread slowly but surely into every land that has ever been connected with a continent, while the rare chances of transfer across the ocean, to which we have referred as possible, have again and again occurred during the almost unimaginable ages of their existence. The remotest and most solitary of the islands of the mid-ocean have thus become stocked with them, though the variety of species and genera bears a direct relation to the facilities of transfer, and the shell fauna is never very rich and varied, except in countries which have at one time or other been united to some continental land.

Causes Favouring the Abundance of Land-Shells.—The abundance and variety of land-shells is also, more than that of any other class of animals, dependent on the nature of the surface and the absence of enemies, and where these conditions are favourable their forms are wonderfully luxuriant. The first condition is the presence of lime in the soil, and a broken surface of country with much rugged [ 80 ] rock offering crevices for concealment and hibernation. The second is a limited bird and mammalian fauna, in which such species as are especially shell-eaters shall be rare or absent. Both these conditions are found in certain large islands, and pre-eminently in the Antilles, which possess more species of land-shells than any single continent. If we take the whole globe, more species of land-shells are found on the islands than on the continents—a state of things to which no approach is made in any other group of animals whatever, but which is perhaps explained by the considerations now suggested.

The Dispersal of Plants.—The ways in which plants are dispersed over the earth, and the special facilities they often possess for migration have been pointed out by eminent botanists, and a considerable space might be occupied in giving a summary of what has been written on the subject. In the present work, however, it is only in two or three chapters that I discuss the origin of insular floras in any detail; and it will therefore be advisable to adduce any special facts when they are required to support the argument in particular cases. A few general remarks only will therefore be made here.

Special Adaptability of Seeds for Dispersal.—Plants possess many great advantages over animals as regards the power of dispersal, since they are all propagated by seeds or spores, which are hardier than the eggs of even insects, and retain their vitality for a much longer time. Seeds may lie dormant for many years and then vegetate, while they endure extremes of heat, of cold, of drought, or of moisture which would almost always be fatal to animal germs. Among the causes of the dispersal of seeds De Candolle enumerates the wind, rivers, ocean currents, icebergs, birds and other animals, and human agency. Great numbers of seeds are specially adapted for transport by one or other of these agencies. Many are very light, and have winged appendages, pappus, or down, which enable them to be carried enormous distances. It is true, as De Candolle remarks, that we have no actual proofs of their being so carried; but this is not surprising when we consider how small and inconspicuous most seeds are. Supposing every [ 81 ] year a million seeds were brought by the wind to the British Isles from the Continent, this would be only ten to a square mile, and the observation of a life-time might never detect one; yet a hundredth part of this number would serve in a few centuries to stock an island like Britain with a great variety of continental plants.

When, however, we consider the enormous quantity of seeds produced by plants, that great numbers of these are more or less adapted to be carried by the wind, and that winds of great violence and long duration occur in most parts of the world, we are as sure that seeds must be carried to great distances as if we had seen them so carried. Such storms carry leaves, hay, dust, and many small objects to a great height in the air, while many insects have been conveyed by them for hundreds of miles out to sea and far beyond what their unaided powers of flight could have effected.

Birds as Agents in the Dispersal of Plants.—Birds are undoubtedly important agents in the dispersal of plants over wide spaces of ocean, either by swallowing fruits and rejecting the seeds in a state fit for germination, or by the seeds becoming attached to the plumage of ground-nesting birds, or to the feet of aquatic birds embedded in small quantities of mud or earth. Illustrations of these various modes of transport will be found in Chapter XII. when discussing the origin of the flora of the Azores and Bermuda.

Ocean-currents as Agents in Plant-dispersal.—Ocean-currents are undoubtedly more important agents in conveying seeds of plants than they are in the case of any other organisms, and a considerable body of facts and experiments have been collected proving that seeds may sometimes be carried in this way many thousand miles and afterwards germinate. Mr. Darwin made a series of interesting experiments on this subject, some of which will be given in the chapter above referred to.

Dispersal along Mountain Chains.—These various modes of transport are, as will be shown when discussing special cases, amply sufficient to account for the vegetation found on oceanic islands, which almost always bears a close [ 82 ] relation to that of the nearest continent; but there are other phenomena presented by the dispersal of species and genera of plants over very wide areas, especially when they occur in widely separated portions of the northern and southern hemispheres, that are not easily explained by such causes alone. It is here that transmission along mountain chains has probably been effective; and the exact mode in which this has occurred is discussed in Chapter XXIII., where a considerable body of facts is given, showing that extensive migrations may be effected by a succession of moderate steps, owing to the frequent exposure of fresh surfaces of soil or débris on mountain sides and summits, offering stations on which foreign plants can temporarily establish themselves.

Antiquity of Plants as affecting their Distribution.—We have already referred to the importance of great antiquity in enabling us to account for the wide dispersal of some genera and species of insects and land-shells, and recent discoveries in fossil botany show that this cause has also had great influence in the case of plants. Rich floras have been discovered in the Miocene, the Eocene, and the Upper Cretaceous formations, and these consist almost wholly of living genera, and many of them of species very closely allied to existing forms. We have therefore every reason to believe that a large number of our plant-species have survived great geological, geographical, and climatal changes; and this fact, combined with the varied and wonderful powers of dispersal many of them possess, renders it far less difficult to understand the examples of wide distribution of the genera and species of plants than in the case of similar instances among animals. This subject will be further alluded to when discussing the origin of the New Zealand flora, in Chapter XXII.


14 ^  Lyell's Principles of Geology, ii., p. 369.

15 ^  Mr. Darwin found that the large Helix pomatia lived after immersion in sea-water for twenty days. It is hardly likely that this is the extreme limit of their powers of endurance, but even this would allow of their being floated many hundred miles at a stretch, and if we suppose the shell to be partially protected in the crevice of a log of wood, and to be thus out of water in calm weather, the distance might extend to a thousand miles or more. The eggs of fresh-water mollusca, as well as the young animals, are known to attach themselves to the feet of aquatic birds, and this is probably the most efficient cause of their very wide diffusion.