Charles Robert Darwin (18091882). Origin of Species. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
XII. Geographical Distribution
Dispersal During the Glacial Period
THE IDENTITY of many plants and animals, on mountain-summits, separated from each other by hundreds of miles of lowlands, where Alpine species could not possibly exist, is one of the most striking cases known of the same species living at distant points without the apparent possibility of their having migrated from one point to the other. It is indeed a remarkable fact to see so many plants of the same species living on the snowy regions of the Alps or Pyrenees, and in the extreme northern parts of Europe; but it is far more remarkable, that the plants on the White Mountains, in the United States of America, are all the same with those of Labrador, and nearly all the same, as we hear from Asa Gray, with those on the loftiest mountains of Europe. Even as long ago as 1747, such facts led Gmelin to conclude that the same species must have been independently created at many distinct points; and we might have remained in this same belief, had not Agassiz and others called vivid attention to the Glacial period, which, as we shall immediately see, affords a simple explanation of these facts. We have evidence of almost every conceivable kind, organic and inorganic, that, within a very recent geological period, central Europe and North America suffered under an arctic climate. The ruins of a house burnt by fire do not tell their tale more plainly than do the mountains of Scotland and Wales, with their scored flanks, polished surfaces, and perched boulders, of the icy streams with which their valleys were lately filled. So greatly has the climate of Europe changed, that in northern Italy, gigantic moraines, left by old glaciers, are now clothed by the vine and maize. Throughout a large part of the United States, erratic boulders and scored rocks plainly reveal a former cold period.
The former influence of the glacial climate on the distribution of the inhabitants of Europe, as explained by Edward Forbes, is substantially as follows. But we shall follow the changes more readily, by supposing a new glacial period slowly to come on, and then pass away, as formerly occurred. As the cold came on, and as each more southern zone became fitted for the inhabitants of the north, these would take the places of the former inhabitants of the temperate regions. The latter, at the same time, would travel further and further southward, unless they were stopped by barriers, in which case they would perish. The mountains would become covered with snow and ice, and their former Alpine inhabitants would descend to the plains. By the time that the cold had reached its maximum, we should have an arctic fauna and flora, covering the central parts of Europe, as far south as the Alps and Pyrenees, and even stretching into Spain. The now temperate regions of the United States would likewise be covered by arctic plants and animals and these would be nearly the same with those of Europe; for the present circumpolar inhabitants, which we suppose to have everywhere travelled southward, are remarkably uniform round the world.
As the warmth returned, the arctic forms would retreat northward, closely followed up in their retreat by the productions of the more temperate regions. And as the snow melted from the bases of the mountains, the arctic forms would seize on the cleared and thawed ground, always ascending, as the warmth increased and the snow still further disappeared, higher and higher, whilst their brethren were pursuing their northern journey. Hence, when the warmth had fully returned, the same species, which had lately lived together on the European and North American lowlands, would again be found in the arctic regions of the Old and New Worlds, and on many isolated mountain-summits far distant from each other.
Thus we can understand the identity of many plants at points so immensely remote as the mountains of the United States and those of Europe. We can thus also understand the fact that the Alpine plants of each mountain range are more especially related to the arctic forms living due north or nearly due north of them: for the first migration when the cold came on, and the re-migration on the returning warmth, would generally have been due south and north. The Alpine plants, for example, of Scotland, as remarked by Mr. H. C. Watson, and those of the Pyrenees, as remarked by Ramond, are more especially allied to the plants of northern Scandinavia; those of the United States to Labrador; those of the mountains of Siberia to the arctic regions of that country. These views, grounded as they are on the perfectly well-ascertained occurrence of a former Glacial period, seem to me to explain in so satisfactory a manner the present distribution of the Alpine and arctic productions of Europe and America, that when in other regions we find the same species on distant mountain summits, we may almost conclude, without other evidence, that a colder climate formerly permitted their migration across the intervening lowlands, now become too warm for their existence.
As the arctic forms moved first southward and afterwards backwards to the north, in unison with the changing climate, they will not have been exposed during their long migration to any great diversity of temperature; and as they all migrated in a body together, their mutual relations will not have been much disturbed. Hence, in accordance with the principles inculcated in this volume, these forms will not have been liable to much modification. But with the Alpine productions, left isolated from the moment of the returning warmth, first at the bases and ultimately on the summits of the mountains, the case will have been somewhat different; for it is not likely that all the same arctic species will have been left on mountain ranges far distant from each other, and have survived there ever since; they will also in all probability, have become mingled with ancient Alpine species, which must have existed on the mountains before the commencement of the Glacial epoch, and which during the coldest period will have been temporarily driven down to the plains; they will, also, have been subsequently exposed to somewhat different climatal influences. Their mutual relations will thus have been in some degree disturbed; consequently they will have been liable to modification; and they have been modified; for if we compare the present Alpine plants and animals of the several great European mountain ranges one with another, though many of the species remain identically the same, some exist as varieties, some as doubtful forms or sub-species, and some as distinct yet closely allied species representing each other on the several ranges.
In the foregoing illustration I have assumed that at the commencement of our imaginary Glacial period, the arctic productions were as uniform round the polar regions as they are at the present day. But it is also necessary to assume that many sub-arctic and some few temperate forms were the same round the world, for some of the species which now exist on the lower mountain-slopes and on the plains of North America and Europe are the same; and it may be asked how I account for this degree of uniformity in the sub-arctic and temperate forms round the world, at the commencement of the real Glacial period. At the present day, the sub-arctic and northern temperate productions of the Old and New Worlds are separated from each other by the whole Atlantic Ocean and by the northern part of the Pacific. During the Glacial period, when the inhabitants of the Old and New Worlds lived farther southward than they do at present, they must have been still more completely separated from each other by wider spaces of ocean; so that it may well be asked how the same species could then or previously have entered the two continents. The explanation, I believe, lies in the nature of the climate before the commencement of the Glacial period. At this, the newer Pliocene period, the majority of the inhabitants of the world were specifically the same as now, and we have good reason to believe that the climate was warmer than at the present day. Hence we may suppose that the organisms which now live under latitude 60°, lived during the Pliocene period farther north under the Polar Circle, in latitude 66°67°; and that the present arctic productions then lived on the broken land still nearer to the pole. Now, if we looked at a terrestrial globe, we see under the Polar Circle that there is almost continuous land from western Europe, through Siberia, to eastern America. And this continuity of the circumpolar land, with the consequent freedom under a more favourable climate for intermigration, will account for the supposed uniformity of the sub-arctic and temperate productions of the Old and New Worlds, at a period anterior to the Glacial epoch.
Believing, from reasons before alluded to, that our continents have long remained in nearly the same relative position, though subjected to great oscillations of level, I am strongly inclined to extend the above view, and to infer that during some still earlier and still warmer period, such as the older Pliocene period, a large number of the same plants and animals inhabited the almost continuous circumpolar land; and that these plants and animals, both in the Old and New Worlds, began slowly to migrate southwards as the climate became less warm, long before the commencement of the Glacial period. We now see, as I believe, their descendants, mostly in a modified condition, in the central parts of Europe and the United States. On this view we can understand the relationship with very little identity, between the productions of North America and Europe,a relationship which is highly remarkable, considering the distance of the two areas, and their separation by the whole Atlantic Ocean. We can further understand the singular fact remarked on by several observers that the productions of Europe and America during the later tertiary stages were more closely related to each other than they are at the present time; for during these warmer periods the northern parts of the Old and New Worlds will have been almost continuously united by land, serving as a bridge, since rendered impassable by cold, for the intermigration of their inhabitants.
During the slowly decreasing warmth of the Pliocene period, as soon as the species in common, which inhabited the New and Old Worlds, migrated south of the Polar Circle, they will have been completely cut off from each other. This separation, as far as the more temperate productions are concerned, must have taken place long ages ago. As the plants and animals migrated southwards, they will have become mingled in the one great region with the native American productions, and would have had to compete with them; and in the other great region, with those of the Old World. Consequently we have here everything favourable for much modification,for far more modification than with the Alpine productions, left isolated, within a much more recent period, on the several mountain-ranges and on the arctic lands of Europe and N. America. Hence it has come, that when we compare the now living productions of the temperate regions of the New and Old Worlds, we find very few identical species (though Asa Gray has lately shown that more plants are identical than was formerly supposed), but we find in every great class many forms, which some naturalists rank as geographical races, and others as distinct species; and a host of closely allied or representative forms which are ranked by all naturalists as specifically distinct.
As on the land, so in the waters of the sea, a slow southern migration of a marine fauna, which, during the Pliocene or even a somewhat earlier period, was nearly uniform along the continuous shores of the Polar Circle, will account, on the theory of modification, for many closely allied forms now living in marine areas completely sundered. Thus, I think, we can understand the presence of some closely allied, still existing and extinct tertiary forms, on the eastern and western shores of temperate North America; and the still more striking fact of many closely allied crustaceans (as described in Danas admirable work), some fish and other marine animals, inhabiting the Mediterranean and the seas of Japan,these two areas being now completely separated by the breadth of a whole continent and by wide spaces of ocean.
These cases of close relationship in species either now or formerly inhabiting the seas on the eastern and western shores of North America, the Mediterranean and Japan, and the temperate lands of North America and Europe, are inexplicable on the theory of creation. We cannot maintain that such species have been created alike, in correspondence with the nearly similar physical conditions of the areas; for if we compare, for instance, certain parts of South America with parts of South Africa or Australia, we see countries closely similar in all their physical conditions, with their inhabitants utterly dissimilar.