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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - The First Human Colonization of the Caribbean

Summary

CARIBBEAN ENVIRONMENTS BEFORE HUMAN COLONIZATION

At the time of the first human visits, the Caribbean islands were vastly different places from what they are today and also very different from the environments that were there in 1492. This can be seen in the animals present on and around the islands, where many of the changes were brought about through human-caused extinctions and the transportation of new species to the islands. There were large flightless owls (Ornimegalonyx oteroi and others) in the Greater Antilles, bigger than any owls living today, and pygmy owls as well. There were also many genera of sloths (e.g., Acratocnus, Megalocnus, and Parocnus) and a range of other mammals, including seals, bats, large insectivores, herbivores, and rodents (Cunningham 1997; Woods 1989). Some of the large ground sloths may have grown to over 250 kg (MacPhee, White, and Woods 2000).

In general, islands have a less diverse range of species than the mainland because of the difficulties animals often faced in getting to the islands. This is a typical characteristic of island faunas – a limited diversity of species and a tendency for some species to take over niches or adapt in ways that produce odd results, for example, with the large flightless Moa birds of New Zealand, weighing up to 240 kg, or the late Pleistocene pygmy elephants of Indonesia (MacArthur and Wilson 1967).

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