Colonial Legacies Influence Biodiversity Lessons: How Past Trade Routes and Power Dynamics Shape Present-Day Scientific Research and Professional Opportunities for Caribbean Scientists

Ryan S. Mohammed, Grace Turner, Kelly Fowler, Michael Pateman, Maria A. Nieves-Colón, Lanya Fanovich, Siobhan B. Cooke, Liliana M. Dávalos, Scott M. Fitzpatrick, Christina M. Giovas, Myles Stokowski, Ashley A. Wrean, Melissa Kemp, Michelle J. Lefebvre, Alexis M. Mychajliw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Scientists recognize the Caribbean archipelago as a biodiversity hotspot and employ it for their research as a natural laboratory. Yet they do not always appreciate that these ecosystems are in fact palimpsests shaped by multiple human cultures over millennia. Although post-European anthropogenic impacts are well documented, human influx into the region began about 5,000 years prior. Thus, inferences of ecological and evolutionary processes within the Caribbean may in fact represent artifacts of an unrecognized human legacy linked to issues influenced by centuries of colonial rule. The threats posed by stochastic natural and anthropogenically influenced disasters demand that we have an understanding of the natural history of endemic species if we are to halt extinctions and maintain access to traditional livelihoods. However, systematic issues have sig- nificantly biased our biological knowledge of the Caribbean. We discuss two case studies of the Caribbean’s fragmented natural history collections and the effects of differing governance by the region’s multiple nation states. We identify knowledge gaps and highlight a dire need for integrated and accessible inventorying of the Caribbean’s collections. Research emphasizing local and international collaboration can lead to positive steps forward and will ultimately help us more accurately study Caribbean biodiversity and the ecological and evolutionary processes that generated it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)140-155
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
On September 1 and 2, 2019, category 5 Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Abaco and Grand Bahama. The effects of this storm were and, in many ways, remain nothing short of devastating to the people and infrastructure of these islands. Among the devastation was the complete loss of the AMMC museum and laboratory facility in Marsh Harbour as well as many of the sites represented in its collections. With the full support of the NMB/AMMC, the FM mounted a rescue effort 3 weeks after the hurricane. A significant portion of the collection—representing over 40 natural history and heritage sites across 14 different Bahamian islands and some Abaco heritage sites—was recovered in various states of preservation. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s Collections in Support

Funding Information:
We are grateful to the many Caribbean institutions, organizations, scientists, communities, colleagues, students, and friends who have pioneered biodiversity research and natural history collections. This author list includes a range of Caribbean and non-Caribbean scholars, and we acknowledge that our views may not represent the whole region; we hope this contribution provokes critical reflection, discussion, and action that advances practice in the region. L.M.D. was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF; DGE 1633299). M.J.L. was supported in part by the NSF (RAPID CSBR 2010764). This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the NSF (DBI 1639145). A.M.M. and R.S.M. thank the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum and the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago. David Steadman and William Keegan offered comments on previous versions of the Bahamas text. Angelo Soto-Centeno, Lázaro Vinola, and Joha Orihuela provided helpful guidance on earlier drafts.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


  • collecting practices
  • environmental archeology
  • equitable science
  • heterogeneous histories
  • national identity
  • natural laboratories
  • Biological Evolution
  • Ecosystem
  • Humans
  • Caribbean Region
  • Biodiversity

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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