Bahamas landscapes

Long-term Dynamics and Resilience of Terrestrial Plant and Animals Communities in the Bahamas

Collaborative Research: Arizona State University (PI Janet Franklin; co-PI P. Fall) and University of Fl
orida (PI David W. Steadman)

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation Geography and Spatial Sciences Program (2011-2014)

In spite of numerous global efforts to assess biodiversity and to formulate plans to decrease the current rates of loss of species and populations, it is becoming increasingly clear that prospects for success depend on improving our understanding of the dynamics of ecosystems at local and regional scales. In this spirit we are examining the long-term dynamics and resilience of terrestrial plant and animal communities in an island system. We are studying both prehistoric and contemporary plant and animal communities on the islands of Abaco and Eleuthera in The Bahamas, where recently discovered, extremely well-preserved plant and animal fossils provide unparalleled evidence of environmental change over the past five or more millennia. We will describe the prehistoric terrestrial ecosystems on these two islands from abundant, chronologically correlated floral and faunal data sets to learn how biotic communities responded to long-term environmental fluctuations, including cultural impacts since the arrival of humans since about 1000 BP.

This figure shows Nancy Albury (The National Museum of the Bahamas) and David Steadman (Florida Museum of Natural History) examining a fossil crocodile scull recovered from Sawmill Sink Blue Hole, Abaco island, The Bahamas, by diver Brian Kakuk (not shown) in July 2009

This project is driven by two broad, related research questions. (1) What were the impacts of environmental fluctuations vs. human activity on prehistoric terrestrial communities? We predict that coordinated, multidisciplinary reconstructions of long-term environmental change will show that terrestrial ecosystems in the northern Bahamas were relatively resilient to climate fluctuations before human arrival, but that prehistoric humans had profound impacts, with cascading effects on biotic communities, since 1000 BP if not earlier. Dated records of charcoal, pollen, spores, plant macrofossils and vertebrates will evaluate rates of biotic change both before and after human arrival. (2) What are the impacts of modern land use on the distribution and composition of terrestrial communities? Calibrated by data from intensive surveys of existing plant and animal communities, we predict that community composition and landscape patterns will show evidence of decreased resilience to disturbance caused by both historical and contemporary land use .

Janet Franklin measuring tree diameters in pine habitat, Little Abaco

For background on this project, see the following publication:

  • Steadman, D. W., R. Franz, G. S. Morgan, N. A. Albury, B. Kakuk, K. Broad, S. E. Franz, K. Tinker, M. P. Pateman, T. A. Lott, D. M. Jarzen, and D. L. Dilcher. 2007. Exceptionally well preserved late Quaternary plant and vertebrate fossils from a blue hole on Abaco, The Bahamas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104:19897-19902
News About This Project

Blue Holes open portal to the past. This link is to a video news story by Katherine Jackson of Thomson Reuters, written and filmed based on our March 2012 field expedition to Eleuthera. This story specifically highlights the scientific objectives of the NSF proposal and interviews PI Steadman (UF) and co-PI Patricia Fall (ASU), as well as Nancy Albury (TNMB), and features cave diver Brian Kakuk.

The Abaco Scientist. Check out this link! Professor Craig Layman, North Carolina State University, had developed this web site as part of his outreach activities for his NSF-sponsored research in marine science and conservation in the Bahamas. It has postings by many groups who are doing all kinds of environmental research in the Bahamas.  Here are some postings about our project:

"Trees matter too!" The broadleaf forests and scrublands of the Bahamas, known locally as Coppice, and regionally as ‘tropical dry forest,’ are more similar to other dry forests in the region than had been documented previously, giving a Caribbean-wide coherence to these ecological communities and the unique biodiversity they support.

"Climate Change and Biodiversity – What can we learn from birds on islands?" Thousands of beautifully preserved bird fossils from dry and water-filled caves on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas have allowed us to reconstruct the bird community found there during the last Ice Age (10,000 or more years ago) and compare it with the birdlife on Abaco today

Gilpin Point Paper is published”  Fossils from Gilpin Point represent a late-Holocene vertebrate community at the time of first human presence; only 10 of the 17 identified species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals still live on Abaco

Feature Paper: Extinct Rail Species Described” Known from abundant, beautifully preserved Late Pleistocene fossils, Rallus cyanocavi sp. nov. was a medium .sized, flightless species that probably was endemic to the Little Bahama Bank

Feature Paper: Winter Forest Bird Communities”   ...both the Coppice and Pineyard forest habitats on Abaco constitute important and complimentary habitats for a variety of our “winter residents” –  migratory songbirds that breed in North America during the summer. 


Franklin, J., Ripplinger, J., Freid, E., Marcano-Vega, H. and Steadman, D.W., in press, Regional variation in Caribbean dry forest tree species composition. Plant Ecology, DOI 10.1007/s11258-015-0474-8. OPEN ACCESS DOWNLOAD A COPY FROM THIS PAGE

Soto-Centeno, J. A. and D. W. Steadman. 2015. Fossils reject climate change as the cause of extinction of Caribbean bats. Nature Scientific Reports 5:7971.

Steadman, D. W. and J. Franklin. 2015. Changes in an insular bird community since the late Pleistocene. Journal of Biogeography 42:426-438 doi:10.1111/jbi.1241

Hastings, A.K., Krigbaum, J., Steadman, D.W. & Albury, N.A. 2014. Domination by reptiles in a terrestrial food web of The Bahamas prior to human occupation. Journal of Herpetology  48: 380-388

Steadman, D. W., Albury, N. A., Maillis, P., Mead, J. I., Slapcinsky, J. D., Krysko, K. J., Singleton, H. M. and Franklin, J., 2014, Late Holocene faunal and landscape change in the Bahamas, The Holocene 24(2) 220–23.  DOI: 10.1177/0959683613516819

Steadman, D.W. (2014) A new species of late Pleistocene rail (Aves: Rallidae) from Abaco, The Bahamas. Paleontological Journal, 47, 1355-1364

Franklin, J. and Steadman, D. W., 2013, The winter bird communities in pine woodland vs. broadleaf forest on Abaco, The Bahamas, Caribbean Naturalist 3:1-18.

Steadman, D.W. & Takano, O.M. (2013) A late-Holocene bird community from Hispaniola: Refining the chronology of vertebrate extinction in the West Indies. The Holocene, 23, 936-944

Krysko, K.L., Steadman, D.W., Mead, J.I., Albury, N.A., MacKenzie-Krysko, C.A. & Swift, S.L. (2013) New island records for amphibians and reptiles on the Little Bahamas Bank, Commonwealth of The Bahamas. IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians, 20, 152-154

Krysko, K.L., Albury, N.A. & Steadman, D.W. (2012) Confirmation of the Southeastern Five-lined Skink Plestiodon inexpectatus Taylor 1932 (Scincidae), on Grand Bahama Island, Commonwealth of the Bahamas. IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians, 19, 126-12

This project is being carried out in cooperation with:

The Bahamas National Trust. and The National Museum of the Bahamas (Antiquities, Museums and Monuments Corporation)

Friends of the Environment, Abaco.

Bahamas Caves Research Foundation.