John R. McNeill: Bison, Elephants, and Sperm Whales: Keystone Species in the Industrial Revolution. [Abstract]

Three giant-sized mammals, bison, African elephants, and sperm whales, faced sustained hunting in the 19th century. Demand for hides, ivory, and whale oil, all of which were useful in industrial production, animated the hunts. Most of the industrial production in question took place in the northeastern United States, while the hunts took place thousands of kilometers away, linking regions in what I call “ecological teleconnections.” The hunts dramatically reduced the populations of all three species, most drastically the bison. For ten thousand years, bison had helped to regulate their biome, the North American prairie grasslands, playing a role of a keystone species. East African elephants on their savanna grasslands, and sperm whales in oceans, had functioned for even longer as keystone species. The sharp and sudden reductions in populations of these animals after 1800 produced a variety of indirect ecological effects, reshuffling the ecosystems in question, making for difficult times for human communities that had come to depend on them.

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