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W4115 Historical Ecology


A mana ray drawing in a 19th century whale log. The 2015 historical ecology class used these whale logs to publish a paper: Collateral Damage to marine and terrestrial ecosystems from Yankee Whaling in the 19th Century 

Instructor:  Joshua Drew

1009 Schermerhorn Ext.

phone: 212 845-7807

email –

Twitter: @Drew_Lab

Meeting Time: T, Th 10:10-11:25                 

Office Hours: Wednesday 12-1 or by appointment


Required: Manahatta: by Eric Sanderson

Recommended: Locust by Jeff Lockwood and Leviathan by Eric Dolan                                   

Prerequisites: EEEB 2001 & EEEB 2002 or equivalent coursework in ecology and evolution


This will be an interdisciplinary course that seeks to understand how modern ecosystems have been altered over the recent past, Drawing on tools from history, archaeology, anthropology, paleontology, oceanography and ecology this class will focus on equipping students with the skills to adequately assess the factors which have influenced the present distribution and assembly of biodiversity in a particular area. We will apply these skills to understanding the historical ecology of the New York City region and beyond.


Discussion leader session  100

Midterm 100

Historical ecology exercises 2 @ 75 150

Final presentation 100

Final group project 250

Participation/Discussion 100

Total 800

Class Expectations:

For each exam you will be responsible for all reading material and all lecture materials. The final exam is comprehensive, but will be weighted for material after the mid-semester exam. If you have a conflict with exams contact me as soon as possible and arrangements will be made to take the exam prior to the scheduled date. There are no make-ups for missing an exam unless you have a valid, pre-approved excuse or medical emergency etc. Participation/Discretionary Points may be given to students who willingly participate in class discussions. No other extra credit points will be available.

This class will consist of weekly lectures and discussions of the literature. Because Historical Ecology is such a fluid and dynamic subject the majority of the readings will be from the primary literature. If you are not comfortable reading primary literature this class may be very challenging as I expect every student to have read each of the assigned papers for each class. Failure to do so will not only hurt your own education, but will lower the grade of your peers as part of each student’s grade is directing a class discussion (see below).

Student participation:

Everyone in this class should feel comfortable to express an idea, even if the idea is not a popular one. I encourage intellectual controversy and believe it is how we learn best. We expect all students to abide by their respective school’ code of academic integrity (GSAS: Columbia College: Barnard: and GS: Breaches of the student code such as cheating and plagiarism (that is, taking credit for the work of others) will not be tolerated, and any breaches of the student code will be referred to the Dean’s Office. Students seeking disability services must register here, and I will be happy to accommodate their recommendations.

Discussion leader:

Each student will have to lead at least one class discussion concerning the readings. This will occur during the last half hour of class and the leader should be prepared to keep the conversation running for that length of time. To facilitate this the discussion leader will have thoroughly read all the papers and be prepared to ask questions that draw linkages across the topics not simply summarizing the papers. Students may lead the discussion in a traditional question and answer format or through more active techniques. Discussion leaders will be graded on the following criteria: 1) understanding of individual papers (40%) 2) synthesis across papers (both for this week and in prior weeks (40%) 3) ability to foster student engagement (20%).

Historical Ecology Exercises:

You will have two individual writing projects: The first will feature data from the New Bedford Whaling Museum records ( calculate the catch per unit effort from ships that sailed at least one generation (20 years) apart. Highlight where the ship went, what kinds of whales it targeted. Calculate what the gross value of the whale oil captured was using Starbuck’s 1876 book here. This exercise may be done in teams as long as in the final report you include individual assessments of each team member’s performance.

The second will be a short written reflection on our visit to the New York Historical Society where you will focus on your impressions on the kinds and quality of historical literature and how we can improve access in an increasingly digitized world. These will be edited together for a blog post on digital historical ecology.

Group Project:

Students will have the opportunity to work in groups on their own independent historical ecology project. Potential topics could include oyster trade in New York City, place names in New York State or using museum collections to document historic ranges of species. Students may also join me in a project looking at climate change in polar regions. Students participating in this project will have the opportunity to compile a group report for potential publication in a peer-reviewed manuscript. Regardless of which project you work on, you will be required to write up the results in a


Week 1          Theoretical approaches to historical ecology and shifting baselines

Week 2          Historical Ecology in Coral Reefs

Week 3          Historical Ecology in Temperate Seas

Week 4          Historical Ecology of the Continental United States and Canada

Week 5          Historical Ecology of the Whaling

Week 6          Historical Ecology of the New York Region – Whaling CPUE exercise due

Week 7          Field Trip to New York Historical Society

Week 8          Field Trip/Midterm

Week 9          Spring Break

Week 10        Historical Ecology of Islands – NYHS writing response due

Week 11        Historical/ethnographic methods

Week 12        Archaeological/anthropological methods

Week 13       Historical Ecology for the Future

Week 14        Final Project Research

Week 15        Final Presentations 1/ Final Presentations 2

READINGS Due the day of:

1 January 19th (Shifting Baselines):

Giglio, V. J., O. J. Luiz, and L. C. Gerhardinger. “Depletion of marine megafauna and shifting baselines among artisanal fishers in eastern Brazil.” Animal Conservation 18.4 (2015): 348-358. 

Pauly, Daniel. “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Trends in ecology and evolution 10.10 (1995): 430.


2 January 24th (Coral Reefs):

Roff, George, et al. “The ecological role of sharks on coral reefs.” Trends in ecology & evolution 31.5 (2016): 395-407.

Sandin, Stuart A., et al. “Baselines and degradation of coral reefs in the northern Line Islands.” PloS one 3.2 (2008): e1548.

Nadon, Marc O., et al. “Re‐Creating Missing Population Baselines for Pacific Reef Sharks.” Conservation Biology 26.3 (2012): 493-503.

January 26th: Clark, Tara R., et al. “Historical photographs revisited: A case study for dating and characterizing recent loss of coral cover on the inshore Great Barrier Reef.Scientific reports 6 (2016).

Yarlett, Robert, et al. “A sustainable museum collection of historical imagery for coral reef baselines.” Coral Reefs 35.2 (2016): 527-527.


3 January 31st (Temperate Seas):

Alleway, Heidi K., and Sean D. Connell. “Loss of an ecological baseline through the eradication of oyster reefs from coastal ecosystems and human memory.” Conservation Biology 29.3 (2015): 795-804. Twitter: @heidikalleway

Baum, Julia K., and Ransom A. Myers. “Shifting baselines and the decline of pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.Ecology Letters 7.2 (2004): 135-145.

February 2nd: Roman, Joe, et al. “Lifting baselines to address the consequences of conservation success.” Trends in ecology & evolution 30.6 (2015): 299-302.

Thurstan, R. H., et al. “Filling historical data gaps to foster solutions in marine conservation.” Ocean & Coastal Management 115 (2015): 31-40. Twitter: @ruththurstan


4 February 7th (Continental US and Canada):

Kai, Zhang, et al. “Shifting baselines on a tropical forest frontier: extirpations drive declines in local ecological knowledge.” PloS one 9.1 (2014): e86598.

Trant, Andrew J., Brian M. Starzomski, and Eric Higgs. “A publically available database for studying ecological change in mountain ecosystems.Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13.4 (2015): 187-187. Twitter: @ajtrant

February 9th: Hanberry, Brice B., and Gregory J. Nowacki. “Oaks were the historical foundation genus of the east-central United States.Quaternary Science Reviews 145 (2016): 94-103.

Lockwood, Jeffrey A., and Larry D. DeBrey. “A solution for the sudden and unexplained extinction of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae).Environmental Entomology 19.5 (1990): 1194-1205.

Martin, Paul S., and Christine R. Szuter. “War zones and game sinks in Lewis and Clark’s west.Conservation Biology 13.1 (1999): 36-45.


5 February 14th (Whaling):

Alter, S. Elizabeth, Eric Rynes, and Stephen R. Palumbi. “DNA evidence for historic population size and past ecosystem impacts of gray whales.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104.38 (2007): 15162-15167.

Drew, Joshua, et al. “Collateral damage to marine and terrestrial ecosystems from Yankee whaling in the 19th century.” Ecology and Evolution 6.22 (2016): 8181-8192.

February 16thHerman, L. M., et al. “Right whale, Balaena glacialis, sightings near Hawaii: a clue to the wintering grounds.” Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser 2 (1980): 271-275.

Herman, Louis M. “Humpback whales in Hawaiian waters: a study in historical ecology.” Pacific Science 33.1 (1979): 1-15.


6 February 21st (New York Region):

Zu Ermgassen, Philine SE, et al. “Historical ecology with real numbers: past and present extent and biomass of an imperilled estuarine habitat.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 279.1742 (2012): 3393-3400.

Cox, John J., David S. Maehr, and Jeffery L. Larkin. “The biogeography of faunal place names in the United States.Conservation Biology 16.4 (2002): 1143-1150.

Bromberg, Keryn D., and Mark D. Bertness. “Reconstructing New England salt marsh losses using historical maps.” Estuaries 28.6 (2005): 823-832.

February 23th: Sanderson part 1 Whaling CPUE exercise due


7 February 28th (New York City):

Field Trip to New-York Historical Society Please arrive at the NYHS (79th and Central Park West, next to AMNH) at 9:45 so we can get checked in

March 2nd: No class


8 For March 7th: Field Trip to Wall St.

March 9th: MIDTERM


9 March 14th: Spring Break

March 16th Spring Break


10 March 21st (Islands):

Duncan, Richard P., Alison G. Boyer, and Tim M. Blackburn. “Magnitude and variation of prehistoric bird extinctions in the Pacific.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.16 (2013): 6436-6441.

Crerar, Lorelei D., et al. “Rewriting the history of an extinction—was a population of Steller’s sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas) at St Lawrence Island also driven to extinction?.Biology letters 10.11 (2014): 20140878.

March 23rdSteadman, David W. “Prehistoric extinctions of Pacific island birds: biodiversity meets zooarchaeology.” Science 267.5201 (1995): 1123.

Martin, Summer L., et al. “Five Decades of Marine Megafauna Surveys from Micronesia.Frontiers in Marine Science 2 (2016): 116.
11 March 28th (Methods 1):

Luiz, Osmar J., and Alasdair J. Edwards. “Extinction of a shark population in the Archipelago of Saint Paul’s Rocks (equatorial Atlantic) inferred from the historical record.Biological Conservation 144.12 (2011): 2873-2881.

Fleischer, Robert C., et al. “Mid-Pleistocene divergence of Cuban and North American ivory-billed woodpeckers.” Biology letters 2.3 (2006): 466-469.

Boessenkool, Sanne, et al. “Lost in translation or deliberate falsification? Genetic analyses reveal erroneous museum data for historic penguin specimens.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences (2009): rspb20091837.

March 30thMcClenachan, Loren, and Andrew B. Cooper. “Extinction rate, historical population structure and ecological role of the Caribbean monk seal.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 275.1641 (2008): 1351-1358. Twitter: @LMcClenachan

Baisre, Julio A. “Shifting baselines and the extinction of the Caribbean monk seal.” Conservation Biology 27.5 (2013): 927-935.

McClenachan, Loren, et al. “Conservation implications of omitting historical data sources: response to Baisre.Conservation Biology 30.1 (2016): 226-227.

Baisre, Julio A. “The uncritical use of anecdotes in marine historical ecology: response to McClenachan et al.” Conservation biology 30.1 (2016): 228-229.


12 April 4th (Methods 2):

Drew, Joshua, Christopher Philipp, and Mark W. Westneat. “Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19 th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies.” PloS one 8.4 (2013): e59855. Twitter: @mwestneat

Jones, S., H. Walsh‐Haney, and R. Quinn. “Kana Tamata or feasts of men: An interdisciplinary approach for identifying cannibalism in prehistoric Fiji.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 25.2 (2015): 127-145.

Sahlins, Marshall. “Artificially maintained controversies: Global warming and Fijian cannibalism.Anthropology Today 19.3 (2003): 3-5.

April 6th: Thurstan, Ruth H., and Callum M. Roberts. “Ecological meltdown in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland: two centuries of change in a coastal marine ecosystem.” PloS one 5.7 (2010): e11767.

Barrett, James H., Rebecca A. Nicholson, and Ruby Cerón-Carrasco. “Archaeo-ichthyological evidence for long-term socioeconomic trends in northern Scotland: 3500 BC to AD 1500.Journal of Archaeological Science 26.4 (1999): 353-388.

Wills, W. H., Brandon L. Drake, and Wetherbee B. Dorshow. “Prehistoric deforestation at Chaco Canyon?.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.32 (2014): 11584-11591.


13 April 11th (Historical Ecology for the Future):

McClenachan, Loren, et al. “The importance of surprising results and best practices in historical ecology.” BioScience (2015): biv100.
Hofman, Courtney A., et al. “Conservation archaeogenomics: ancient DNA and biodiversity in the Anthropocene.Trends in ecology & evolution 30.9 (2015): 540-549.

April 13th : Delibes, Rocío, and Miguel Delibes-Mateos. “Linking historical ecology and invasion biology: some lessons from European rabbit introductions into the new world before the nineteenth century.” Biological Invasions 17.9 (2015): 2505-2515.


14 April 18th : Final Project Research

April 20th : Final Project Research


15 For April 25th: Final Presentations

For April 27th: Final Presentations

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