EDWARD O. WILSON
The Boston Harbor Islands are a natural laboratory seemingly made
to order for research and education in biodiversity. They are small as
islands go, yet highly variable in size, ecologically relatively simple,
with a long history (for the New World) of European influence, and immediately
accessible to a major urban center. These features combined
offer multiple opportunities for scientific discovery.
The variation in area and in the degree of isolation of the islands in
this miniature archipelago are ideal for close analysis of island biogeography,
at least for plants and less fragile insects and other invertebrates.
For such organisms, area and distance to mainland and nearest neighbors
are key factors in the determination of biodiversity.
The habitats of the islands are simple enough in structure to permit correlative
studies of within-island habitat size and occurrence of individual
species. Those studies offer in turn the opportunity to explain, at least in
part, the reason for the area-species power law for the archipelago.
The long history of human occupation and environmental modification of the individual islands is known, and can be worked into
explanations of the biodiversity patterns. Many of the species, such as
earthworms and centipedes, will be found to be alien introductions, and
their role in affecting the environment can be analyzed.
The small number of species present (relative to, say, the Great
Smoky Mountains National Park) will allow all-species inventories,
which will be among the first conducted in the US.
An emphasis might (and should) be placed on invertebrates, fungi,
and eventually microorganisms. This, again, would be one of the first
The concept of microwildernesses can be perfected and tested
here. The larger mammals and probably some of the bird and tree species
from pre-European days are gone, but a teeming diversity that
has been present for thousands of years remains in the invertebrates
and other small organisms. A conventional macrowilderness requires
an island or an entire archipelago, but a microwilderness requires
only a patch of fallow soil.
With bioblitzes and some engagement from the large population of
professional and amateur naturalists in New England, a Boston Harbor
Islands database can be grown rapidly. The public image and educational
benefits from such a continuing enterprise, especially if made part
of recreation and education, are obvious.
1Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.
Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area: Natural Resources Overview
2005 Northeastern Naturalist 12(Special Issue 3):2