The Geographical Distribution of Animals/Chapter 3

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The distribution of animals over the earth's surface, is evidently dependent in great measure upon those grand and important characteristics of our globe, the study of which is termed physical geography. The proportion of land and water; the outlines and distribution of continents; the depth of seas and oceans; the position of islands; the height, direction, and continuity of mountain chains; the position and extent of deserts, lakes, and forests; the direction and velocity of ocean currents, as well as of prevalent winds and hurricanes; and lastly, the distribution of heat and cold, of rain, snow, and ice, both in their means and in their extremes, have all to be considered when we endeavour to account for the often unequal and unsymmetrical manner in which animals are dispersed over the globe. But even this knowledge is insufficient unless we inquire further as to the evidence of permanence possessed by each of these features, in order that we may give due weight to the various causes that have led to the existing facts of animal distribution.

Land and Water.—The well-known fact that nearly three-fourths of the surface of the earth is occupied by water, and but a little more than one-fourth by land, is important as indicating the vast extent of ocean by which many of the continents and islands are separated from each other. But there is another fact which greatly increases its importance, namely, that the mean height of the land is very small compared with the mean depth of the sea. It has been estimated by Humboldt that the mean height of all the land surface does not exceed a thousand feet, owing to the comparative narrowness of mountain ranges and the great extent of alluvial plains and valleys; the ocean bed, on the contrary, not only descends deeper than the tops of the highest mountains rise above its surface, but these profound depths are broad sunken plains, while the shallows correspond to the mountain ranges, so that its mean depth is, as nearly as can be estimated, twelve thousand feet.[1] Hence, as the area of water is three times that of the land, the total cubical contents of the land, above the sea level, would be only that of the waters which are below that level. The important result follows, that whereas it is scarcely possible that in past times the amount of land surface should ever greatly have exceeded that which now exists, it is just possible that all the land may have been at some time submerged; and therefore in the highest degree probable that among the continual changes of land and sea that have been always going on, the amount of land surface has often been much less than it is now. For the same reason it is probable that there have been times when large masses of land have been more isolated from the rest than they are at present; just as South America would be if North America were submerged, or as Australia would become if the Malay Archipelago were to sink beneath the ocean. It is also very important to bear in mind the fact insisted on by Sir Charles Lyell, that the shallow parts of the ocean are almost always in the vicinity of land; and that an amount of elevation that would make little difference to the bed of the ocean, would raise up extensive tracts of dry land in the vicinity of existing continents. It is almost certain, therefore, that changes in the distribution of land and sea must have taken place more frequently by additions to, or modifications of pre-existing land, than by the upheaval of entirely new continents in mid-ocean. These two principles will throw light upon two constantly recurring groups of facts in the distribution of animals,—the restriction of peculiar forms to areas not at present isolated,—and on the other hand, the occurrence of allied forms in lands situated on opposite shores of the great oceans.

Continental Areas.—Although the dry land of the earth's surface is distributed with so much irregularity, that there is more than twice as much north of the equator as there is south of it, and about twice as much in the Asiatic as in the American hemisphere; and, what is still more extraordinary, that on a hemisphere of which a point in St. George's Channel between England and Ireland is the centre, the land is nearly equal in extent to the water, while in the opposite hemisphere it is in the proportion of only one-eighth,—yet the whole of the land is almost continuous. It consists essentially of only three masses: the American, the Asia-African, and the Australian. The two former are only separated by thirty-six miles of shallow sea at Behring's Straits, so that it is possible to go from Cape Horn to Singapore or the Cape of Good Hope without ever being out of sight of land; and owing to the intervention of the numerous islands of the Malay Archipelago the journey might be continued under the same conditions as far as Melbourne and Hobart Town. This curious fact, of the almost perfect continuity of all the great masses of land notwithstanding their extremely irregular shape and distribution, is no doubt dependent on the circumstances just alluded to; that the great depth of the oceans and the slowness of the process of upheaval, has almost always produced the new lands either close to, or actually connected with pre-existing lands; and this has necessarily led to a much greater uniformity in the distribution of organic forms, than would have prevailed had the continents been more completely isolated from each other.

The isthmuses which connect Africa with Asia, and North with South America, are, however, so small and insignificant compared with the vast extent of the countries they unite that we can hardly consider them to form more than a nominal connection. The Isthmus of Suez indeed, being itself a desert, and connecting districts which for a great distance are more or less desert also, does not effect any real union between the luxuriant forest-clad regions of intertropical Asia and Africa. The Isthmus of Panama is a more effectual line of union, since it is hilly, well watered, and covered with luxuriant vegetation; and we accordingly find that the main features of South American zoology are continued into Central America and Mexico. In Asia a great transverse barrier exists, dividing that continent into a northern and southern portion; and as the lowlands occur on the south and the highlands on the north of the great mountain range, which is situated not far beyond the tropic, an abrupt change of climate is produced; so that a belt of about a hundred miles wide, is all that intervenes between a luxuriant tropical region and an almost arctic waste. Between the northern part of Asia, and Europe, there is no barrier of importance; and it is impossible to separate these regions as regards the main features of animal life. Africa, like Asia, has a great transverse barrier, but it is a desert instead of a mountain chain; and it is found that this desert is a more effectual barrier to the diffusion of animals than the Mediterranean Sea; partly because it coincides with the natural division of a tropical from a temperate climate, but also on account of recent geological changes which we shall presently allude to. It results then from this outline sketch of the earth's surface, that the primary divisions of the geographer correspond approximately with those of the zoologist. Some large portion of each of the popular divisions forms the nucleus of a zoological region; but the boundaries are so changed that the geographer would hardly recognise them: it has, therefore, been found necessary to give them those distinct names which will be fully explained in our next chapter.

Recent Changes in the Continental Areas.—The important fact has been now ascertained, that a considerable portion of the Sahara south of Algeria and Morocco was under water at a very recent epoch. Over much of this area sea-shells, identical with those now living in the Mediterranean, are abundantly scattered, not only in depressions below the level of the sea but up to a height of 900 feet above it. Borings for water made by the French government have shown, that these shells occur twenty feet deep in the sand; and the occurrence of abundance of salt, sometimes even forming considerable hills, is an additional proof of the disappearance of a large body of salt water. The common cockle is one of the most abundant of the shells found; and the Rev. H. B. Tristram discovered a new fish, in a salt lake nearly 300 miles inland, but which has since been found to inhabit the Gulf of Guinea. Connected with this proof of recent elevation in the Sahara, we have most interesting indications of subsidence in the area of the Mediterranean, which were perhaps contemporaneous. Sicily and Malta are connected with Africa by a submerged bank from 300 to 1,200 feet below the surface; while the depth of the Mediterranean, both to the east and west, is enormous, in some parts more than 13,000 feet; and another submerged bank with a depth of 1,000 feet occurs at the straits of Gibraltar. In caves in Sicily, remains of the living African elephant have been found by Baron Anca; and in other caves Dr. Falconer discovered remains of the Elephas antiquus and of two species of Hippopotamus. In Malta, three species of elephant have been discovered by Captain Spratt; a large one closely allied to E. antiquus and two smaller ones not exceeding five feet high when adult. These facts clearly indicate, that when North Africa was separated by a broad arm of the sea from the rest of the continent, it was probably connected with Europe; and this explains why zoologists find themselves obliged to place it along with Europe in the same zoological region.

Besides this change in the level of the Sahara and the Mediterranean basin, Europe has undergone many fluctuations in its physical geography in very recent times. In Wales, abundance of sea-shells of living species have been found at an elevation of 1,300 feet; and in Sardinia there is proof of an elevation of 300 feet since the human epoch; and these are only samples of many such changes of level. But these changes, though very important locally and as connected with geological problems, need not be further noticed here; as they were not of a nature to affect the larger features of the earth's surface or to determine the boundaries of great zoological regions.

The only other recent change of great importance which can be adduced to illustrate our present subject, is that which has taken place between North and South America. The living marine shells of the opposite coasts of the isthmus of Panama, as well as the corals and fishes, are generally of distinct species, but some are identical and many are closely allied; the West Indian fossil shells and corals of the Miocene period, however, are found to be largely identical with those of the Pacific coast. The fishes of the Atlantic and Pacific shores of America are as a rule very distinct; but Dr. Günther has recently shown that a considerable number of species inhabiting the seas on opposite sides of the isthmus are absolutely identical. These facts certainly indicate, that during the Miocene epoch a broad channel separated North and South America; and it seems probable that a series of elevations and subsidences have taken place uniting and separating them at different epochs; the most recent submersion having lasted but a short time, and thus, while allowing the passage of abundance of locomotive fishes, not admitting of much change in the comparatively stationary mollusca.

The Glacial Epoch as affecting the Distribution of Animals.—The remarkable refrigeration of climate in the northern hemisphere within the epoch, of existing species, to which the term Glacial epoch is applied, together with the changes of level that accompanied and perhaps assisted to produce it, has been one of the chief agents in determining many of the details of the existing distribution of animals in temperate zones. A comparison of the effects produced by existing glaciers with certain superficial phenomena in the temperate parts of Europe and North America, renders it certain that between the Newer Pliocene and the Recent epochs, a large portion of the northern hemisphere must have been covered with a sheet of ice several thousand feet thick, like that which now envelopes the interior of Greenland. Much further south the mountains were covered with perpetual snow, and sent glaciers down every valley; and all the great valleys on the southern side of the Alps poured down streams of ice which stretched far out into the plains of Northern Italy, and have left their débris in the form of huge mountainous moraines, in some cases more than a thousand feet high. In Canada and New Hampshire the marks of moving ice are found on the tops of mountains from 3,000 to 5,000 feet high; and the whole surface of the country around and to the north of the great lakes is scored by glaciers. Wherever the land was submerged during a part of this cold period, a deposit called boulder-clay, or glacial-drift has been formed. This is a mass of sand, clay, or gravel, full of angular or rounded stones of all sizes, up to huge blocks as large as a cottage; and especially characterized by these stones being distributed confusedly through it, the largest being as often near the top as near the bottom, and never sorted into layers of different sizes as in materials carried by water. Such deposits are known to be formed by glaciers and icebergs; when deposited on the land by glaciers they form moraines, when carried into water and thus spread with more regularity over a wider area they form drift. This drift is rarely found except where there is other evidence of ice-action, and never south of the 40th parallel of latitude, to which in the northern hemisphere signs of ice-action extend. In the southern hemisphere, in Patagonia and in New Zealand, exactly similar phenomena occur.

A very interesting confirmation of the reality of this cold epoch is derived from the study of fossil remains. Both the plants and animals of the Miocene period indicate that the climate of Central Europe was decidedly warmer or more equable than it is now; since the flora closely resembled that of the Southern United States, with a likeness also to that of Eastern Asia and Australia. Many of the shells were of tropical genera; and there were numbers of large mammalia allied to the elephant, rhinoceros, and tapir. At the same time, or perhaps somewhat earlier, a temperate climate extended into the arctic regions, and allowed a magnificent vegetation of shrubs and forest trees, some of them evergreen, to flourish within twelve degrees of the Pole. In the Pliocene period we find ourselves among forms implying a climate very little different from the present; and our own Crag formation furnishes evidence of a gradual refrigeration of climate; since its three divisions, the Coralline, Red, and Norwich Crags, show a decreasing number of southern, and an increasing number of northern species, as we approach the Glacial epoch. Still later than these we have the shells of the drift, almost all of which are northern and many of them arctic species. Among the mammalia indicative of cold, are the mammoth and the reindeer. In gravels and cave-deposits of Post-Pliocene date we find the same two animals, which soon disappear as the climate approached its present condition; and Professor Forbes has given a list of fifty shells which inhabited the British seas before the Glacial epoch and inhabit it still, but are all wanting in the glacial deposits. The whole of these are found in the Newer Pliocene strata of Sicily and the south of Europe, where they escaped destruction during the glacial winter.

There are also certain facts in the distribution of plants, which are so well explained by the Glacial epoch that they may be said to give an additional confirmation to it. All over the northern hemisphere within the glaciated districts, the summits of lofty mountains produce plants identical with those of the polar regions. In the celebrated case of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, United States (latitude 45°), all the plants on the summit are arctic species, none of which exist in the lowlands for near a thousand miles further north. It has also been remarked that the plants of each mountain are more especially related to those of the countries directly north of it. Thus, those of the Pyrenees and of Scotland are Scandinavian, and those of the White Mountains are all species found in Labrador. Now, remembering that we have evidence of an exceedingly mild and uniform climate in the arctic regions during the Miocene period and a gradual refrigeration from that time, it is evident that with each degree of change more and more hardy plants would be successively driven southwards; till at last the plains of the temperate zone would be inhabited by plants, which were once confined to alpine heights or to the arctic regions. As the icy mantle gradually melted off the face of the earth these plants would occupy the newly exposed soil, and would thus necessarily travel in two directions, back towards the arctic circle and up towards the alpine peaks. The facts are thus exactly explained by a cause which independent evidence has proved to be a real one, and every such explanation is an additional proof of the reality of the cause. But this explanation implies, that in cases where the Glacial epoch cannot have so acted alpine plants should not be northern plants; and a striking proof of this is to be found on the Peak of Teneriffe, a mountain 12,000 feet high. In the uppermost 4,500 feet of this mountain above the limit of trees, Von Buch found only eleven species of plants, eight of which were peculiar; but the whole were allied to those found at lower elevations. On the Alps or Pyrenees at this elevation, there would be a rich flora comprising hundreds of arctic plants; and the absence of anything corresponding to them in this case, in which their ingress was cut off by the sea, is exactly what the theory leads us to expect.

Changes of Vegetation as affecting the Distribution of Animals.—As so many animals are dependent on vegetation, its changes immediately affect their distribution. A remarkable example of this is afforded by the pre-historic condition of Denmark, as interpreted by means of the peat-bogs and kitchen-middens. This country is now celebrated for its beech-trees; oaks and pines being scarce; and it is known to have had the same vegetation in the time of the Romans. In the peat-bogs, however, are found deposits of oak trees; and deeper still pines alone occur. Now the kitchen-middens tell us much of the natural history of Denmark in the early Stone period; and a curious confirmation of the fact that Denmark like Norway was then chiefly covered with pine forests is obtained by the discovery, that the Capercailzie was then abundant, a bird which feeds almost exclusively on the young shoots and seeds of pines and allied plants. The cause of this change in the vegetation is unknown; but from the known fact that when forests are destroyed trees, of a different kind usually occupy the ground, we may suppose that some such change as a temporary submergence might cause an entirely different vegetation and a considerably modified fauna to occupy the country.

Organic Changes as affecting Distribution.—We have now briefly touched on some of the direct effects of changes in physical geography, climate, and vegetation, on the distribution of animals; but the indirect effects of such changes are probably of quite equal, if not of greater importance. Every change becomes the centre of an ever-widening circle of effects. The different members of the organic world are so bound together by complex relations, that any one change generally involves numerous other changes, often of the most unexpected kind. We know comparatively little of the way in which one animal or plant is bound up with others, but we know enough to assure us that groups the most apparently disconnected are often dependent on each other. We know, for example, that the introduction of goats into St. Helena utterly destroyed a whole flora of forest trees; and with them all the insects, mollusca, and perhaps birds directly or indirectly dependent on them. Swine, which ran wild in Mauritius, exterminated the Dodo. The same animals are known to be the greatest enemies of venomous serpents. Cattle will, in many districts, wholly prevent the growth of trees; and with the trees the numerous insects dependent on those trees, and the birds which fed upon the insects, must disappear, as well as the small mammalia which feed on the fruits, seeds, leaves, or roots. Insects again have the most wonderful influence on the range of mammalia. In Paraguay a certain species of fly abounds which destroys new-born cattle and horses; and thus neither of these animals have run wild in that country, although they abound both north and south of it. This inevitably leads to a great difference in the vegetation of Paraguay, and through that to a difference in its insects, birds, reptiles, and wild mammalia. On what causes the existence of the fly depends we do not know, but it is not improbable that some comparatively slight changes in the temperature or humidity of the air at a particular season, or the introduction of some enemy might lead to its extinction or banishment. The whole face of the country would then soon be changed: new species would come in, while many others would be unable to live there; and the immediate cause of this great alteration would probably be quite imperceptible to us, even if we could watch it in progress year by year. So, in South Africa, the celebrated Tsetse fly inhabits certain districts having well defined limits; and where it abounds no horses, dogs, or cattle can live. Yet asses, zebras, and antelopes are unaffected by it. So long as this fly continues to exist, there is a living barrier to the entrance of certain animals, quite as effectual as a lofty mountain range or a wide arm of the sea. The complex relations of one form of life with others is nowhere better illustrated than in Mr. Darwin's celebrated case of the cats and clover, as given in his Origin of Species, 6th ed., p. 57. He has observed that both wild heartsease and red-clover are fertilized in this country by humble-bees only, so that the production of seed depends on the visits of these insects. A gentleman who has specially studied humble-bees finds that they are largely kept down by field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Field-mice in their turn are kept down by cats; and probably also by owls; so that these carnivorous animals are really the agents in rendering possible the continued existence of red-clover and wild heartsease. For if they were absent, the field-mice having no enemies, would multiply to such an extent as to destroy all the humble-bees; and these two plants would then produce no seed and soon become extinct.

Mr. Darwin has also shown that one species often exterminates another closely allied to it, when the two are brought into contact. One species of swallow and thrush are known to have increased at the expense of allied species. Rats, carried all over the world by commerce, are continually extirpating other species of rats. The imported hive-bee is, in Australia, rapidly exterminating a native stingless bee. Any slight change, therefore, of physical geography or of climate, which allows allied species hitherto inhabiting distinct areas to come into contact, will often lead to the extermination of one of them; and this extermination will be effected by no external force, by no actual enemy, but merely because the one is slightly better adapted to live, to increase, and to maintain itself under adverse circumstances, than the other.

Now if we consider carefully the few suggestive facts here referred to (and many others of like import are to be found in Mr. Darwin's various works), we shall be led to conclude that the several species, genera, families, and orders, both of animals and vegetables which inhabit any extensive region, are bound together by a series of complex relations; so that the increase, diminution, or extermination of any one, may set in motion a series of actions and reactions more or less affecting a large portion of the whole, and requiring perhaps centuries of fluctuation before the balance is restored. The range of any species or group in such a region, will in many cases (perhaps in most) be determined, not by physical barriers, but by the competition of other organisms. Where barriers have existed from a remote epoch, they will at first have kept back certain animals from coming in contact with each other; but when the assemblage of organisms on the two sides of the barrier have, after many ages, come to form a balanced organic whole, the destruction of the barrier may lead to a very partial intermingling of the peculiar forms of the two regions. Each will have become modified in special ways adapted to the organic and physical conditions of the country, and will form a living barrier to the entrance of animals less perfectly adapted to those conditions. Thus while the abolition of ancient barriers will always lead to much intermixture of forms, much extermination and wide-spread alteration in some families of animals; other important groups will be unable materially to alter their range; or they may make temporary incursions into the new territory, and be ultimately driven back to very near their ancient limits.

In order to make this somewhat difficult subject more intelligible, it may be well to consider the probable effects of certain hypothetical conditions of the earth's surface:—

1. If the dry land of the globe had been from the first continuous, and nowhere divided up by such boundaries as lofty mountain ranges, wide deserts, or arms of the sea, it seems probable that none of the larger groups (as orders, tribes, or families,) would have a limited range; but, as is to some extent the case in tropical America east of the Andes, every such group would be represented over the whole area, by countless minute modifications of form adapted to local conditions.

2. One great physical barrier would, however, even then exist; the hot equatorial zone would divide the faunas and floras of the colder regions of the northern and southern hemispheres from any chance of intermixture. This one barrier would be more effectual than it is now, since there would be no lofty mountain ranges to serve as a bridge for the partial interchange of northern and southern forms.

3. If such a condition of the earth as here supposed continued for very long periods, we may conceive that the action and reaction of the various organisms on each other, combined with the influence of very slowly changing physical conditions, would result in an almost perfect organic balance, which would be manifested by a great stability in the average numbers, the local range, and the peculiar characteristics of every species.

4. Under such a condition of things it is not improbable that the total number of clearly differentiated specific forms might be much greater than it is now, though the number of generic and family types might perhaps be less; for dominant species would have had ample time to spread into every locality where they could exist, and would then become everywhere modified into forms best suited to the permanent local conditions.

5. Now let us consider what would be the probable effect of the introduction of a barrier, cutting off a portion of this homogeneous and well-balanced world. Suppose, for instance, that a subsidence took place, cutting off by a wide arm of the sea a large and tolerably varied island. The first and most obvious result would be that the individuals of a number of species would be divided into two portions, while others, the limits of whose range agreed approximately with the line of subsidence, would exist in unimpaired numbers on the new island or on the main land. But the species whose numbers were diminished and whose original area was also absolutely diminished by the portion now under the sea, would not be able to hold their ground against the rival forms whose numbers were intact. Some would probably diminish and rapidly die out; others which produced favourable varieties, might be so modified by natural selection as to maintain their existence under a different form; and such changes would take place in varying modes on the two sides of the new strait.

6. But the progress of these changes would necessarily affect the other species in contact with them. New places would be opened in the economy of nature which many would struggle to obtain; and modification would go on in ever-widening circles and very long periods of time might be required to bring the whole again into a state of equilibrium.

7. A new set of factors would in the meantime have come into play. The sinking of land and the influx of a large body of water could hardly take place without producing important climatal changes. The temperature, the winds, the rains, might all be affected, and more or less changed in duration and amount. This would lead to a quite distinct movement in the organic world. Vegetation would certainly be considerably affected, and through this the insect tribes. We have seen how closely the life of the higher animals is often bound up with that of insects; and thus a set of changes might arise that would modify the numerical proportions, and even the forms and habits of a great number of species, would completely exterminate some, and raise others from a subordinate to a dominant position. And all these changes would occur differently on opposite sides of the strait, since the insular climate could not fail to differ considerably from that of the continent.

8. But the two sets of changes, as above indicated, produced by different modes of action of the same primary cause, would act and react on each other; and thus lead to such a far-spreading disturbance of the organic equilibrium as ultimately perhaps to affect in one way or another, every form of life upon the earth.

This hypothetical case is useful as enabling us better to realize how wide-spreading might be the effects of one of the simplest changes of physical geography, upon a compact mass of mutually adapted organisms. In the actual state of things, the physical changes that occur and have occurred through all geological epochs are larger and more varied. Almost every mile of land surface has been again and again depressed beneath the ocean; most of the great mountain chains have either originated or greatly increased in height during the Tertiary period; marvellous alterations of climate and vegetation have taken place over half the land-surface of the earth; and all these vast changes have influenced a globe so cut up by seas and oceans, by deserts and snow-clad mountains, that in many of its more isolated land-masses ancient forms of life have been preserved, which, in the more extensive and more varied continents have long given way to higher types. How complex then must have been the actions and reactions such a state of things would bring about; and how impossible must it be for us to guess, in most cases, at the exact nature of the forces that limit the range of some species and cause others to be rare or to become extinct! All that we can in general hope to do is, to trace out, more or less hypothetically, some of the larger changes in physical geography that have occurred during the ages immediately preceeding our own, and to estimate the effect they will probably have produced on animal distribution. We may then, by the aid of such knowledge as to past organic mutations as the geological record supplies us with, be able to determine the probable birthplace and subsequent migrations of the more important genera and families; and thus obtain some conception of that grand series of co-ordinated changes in the earth and its inhabitants, whose final result is seen in the forms and the geographical distribution of existing animals.

  1. This estimate has been made for me by Mr. Stanford from the materials used in delineating the contours of the ocean-bed on our general map. It embodies the result of all the soundings of the Challenger, Tuscarora, and other vessels, obtainable up to August, 1875.