Last night's Secret Science Club lecture was yet another tour-de-force- Wildlife Conservation Society landscape ecologist Dr. Eric Sanderson, author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, compiled extensive information about the landscape and ecology of the New York metropolitan area before Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up the river which now bears his name. While Mannahatta was concerned with the island of Manhattan, his new project is a reconstruction of the ecosystems of the all five boroughs of New York City. Taking it's name from a Lenape word meaning "my good home", the Welikia project is a ground-up approach to determine what the landscape of the city would have looked like had the European colonization and subsequent development (the Lenape did modify the landscape through their agricultural activities, but they tended to move around seasonally to exploit different food sources) not occurred.
The lecture centered on Manhattan, and began with a discussion of what has come to be known as the British Headquarters Map of 1782 (video is of a presentation by Dr. Sanderson), which depicted the topography of Manhattan in excruciating detail. Much of the topographic data in the Mannahatta Project came from this map. Data about the bedrock and soil types were used to extrapolate what sort of ecosystems would have been present in a particular region- for example, East Harlem was a grassland, and Foley Square was once a body of fresh water which came to be known as the Collect Pond. The Lenape had a settlement on the shore of the Collect Pond. The pond was eventually filled in, though the aroma of rotting vegetation ensured the the resultant neighborhood Five Points was a wretched hive of scum and villainy until it was razed, and the government center was built, making it a well-appointed hive of scum and villainy.
Most of the lecture dealt with the various features of the Welikia Project- the methodology used to compile the information, and the Muir Web (an exploration of the interconnectedness of all things, the name of which is inspired by John Muir's quote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.") which, in many ways, forms the heart of the project. By figuring out the requirements for any particular species, one can extrapolate what other species would be present in a particular ecological community (Manhattan once had 55 separate ecological communities).
I'm a little pressed for time because I have to get my ass to work soon, but you should check out the Welikia Project website- I'm afraid to click on the interactive map, because it is bound to be a glorious time eater. The various layers of maps are gorgeous, and allow one to see what Times Square (for instance) would look like if it weren't the "crossroads of the world". I'm sure I'll be playing with the various map features as soon as I have time.
Just for the record, during the Q&A, some bastard asked about the prevalence of invasive species in the New York metro area, and about the return of the beaver to New York City. After the lecture, said bastard showed Dr. Sanderson some beaver pics he'd taken on the job, but that's the topic of a future post.