Columbus’ discovery of the New World unleashed centuries of geopolitical turmoil. But humans weren’t the only creatures whose fortunes were forever altered. Entire species of plants and animals either thrived or suffered as well. In the book 1493, author (and Wired contributor) Charles C. Mann traces the far-reaching biological consequences of Columbus’ journey across the ocean blue. “There is a Rube Goldberg aspect to this,” Mann says. “Things are connected in ways that you would never expect.” And just as with human societies, some organisms came out on top, while others were radically subjugated. Here are a few key flora and fauna and how they weathered the storm.
- PLANTAINS ENABLE FIRE ANTS. The African plantain is plagued by insects called scale. Back in Africa, however, predators help combat these scavengers. But when the fruit was brought to Hispaniola, it received no such aid. So the bugs proliferated—along with fire ants, which fed on the other insects’ sugary excrement. Both pests thrived until their unchecked appetites destroyed the local plantain crop.
- RUBBER CONQUERS ORCHIDS. For centuries, orchids thrived in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The damp terrain and omnipresent mist provided the perfect environment for the moisture-loving epiphytes. But when rubber trees from the Amazon rain forest were imported to southern China, their thirst for water dried out the soil. The once-plentiful morning fog began to disappear. Soon the orchids started to as well.
- EARTHWORMS STARVE TREES AND POWER UP MAIZE. Before being brought to the US, the common earthworm aided farmers in England by humbly tilling their soil. But once transplanted, the wrigglers’ tu nneling disrupted the nutrient-absorbing fungi on the roots of sugar maples, causing the trees’ decline. And by aerating the newly cleared land, the worm allowed crops like maize to grow year-round.
- POTATOES BATTLE NEW FOE. In its Andean motherland, the resilient potato grew in all shapes and sizes. But as the mighty tuber spread across the globe, its varieties dwindled to a monoculture—an easy target for opponents in adopted lands. None was quite so vicious as the Colorado potato beetle. Carried to North America in the manes of traveling horses, the bug became a permanent scourge to the plant in regions around the world.