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Human Niche Construction
The beaver (Castor canadensis) provides the best-known example in the animal kingdom of “niche construction” or “ecosystem engineering”– the deliberate modification of an environment by a species as a way of improving its likelihood of survival. Niche construction is increasingly recognized as a major force in how a wide range of animal species adapt and evolve.
Humans are acknowledged as the “ultimate ecosystem engineers,” with the domestication of plants and animals standing out as a powerful example of our modification of the earth’s ecosystems to suit our own needs. In addition to bringing a wide range of species under domestication, humans have, over the past 10,000 years and more, also modified or enhanced local environments in ways that benefit wild plants and animals that they depend on for food and raw materials.
I am interested in identifying and analyzing the general strategies of niche construction that have been employed by small-scale preindustrial societies to increase the abundance and predictability of economically important wild plants and animals. The most obvious of these strategies include controlled burning to inhibit low-value competitors in order to enhance the growth of preferred plant species (e.g. nut and mast-bearing trees), the transplanting of high-value fruit and berry producing species, and the construction of structures to increase the spatial and temporal predictability of high-value animal species (e.g. fish weirs and impoundments and herd animal drive-lines.
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