The Biodiversity Value of Archaeological Sites

Omar Attum was an ACOR-CAORC Post Doctoral Fellow in Summer 2018.  He is an Associate Professor of Biology at Indiana University Southeast (IUS).  His scholarly activity centers around his passion for conservation of wildlife in the Middle East, Saharan and Arabian deserts, and the Red Sea.  He is also interested in studying which heritage and cultural practices allow wildlife to persist in semi-modified landscapes.

Little Owl, all photos courtesy of Omar Attum

I still remember clearly as a child when we would travel to Jordan to visit my family.  My grandparents would take us to the monuments of Jerash for a picnic.  The awe of passing through the Hadrian’s Arche opened the gateway of excitement, as I was barely able to contain myself.  The voices of my worried grandparents called out to me, “wait”, as I set off to explore, climb, and look for reptiles in the ruins of an empire from over 2000 years ago.  Perhaps this is where the seeds for my current research, “Do archaeological sites have biological value?”, were planted.  Even when I was older and in college, I still returned to Jordan’s grand archaeological sites of Petra, Jerash, and Umm Qais, the latter being the site of this research, to explore and look for wildlife.

Starred Agama

As a wildlife biologist, I have realized that archaeological sites have significant potential biodiversity value.  As a CAORC-ACOR fellow, I finally had the opportunity to test my hypothesis.  In collaboration with ecologists from the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) in Jordan, we compared the rock and tree habitat structure and the number of bird, reptile, and bat species in an archaeological site (Umm Qais) with a natural site (Yarmouk Protected Area) and a modern olive grove.

Umm Qais, the site of the ancient city of Gadara, is a Greco-Roman ruin that was one of the Decapolis cities.  In addition to the ruins, the archaeological site is also home to a several hundred year old olive grove.  If the archaeological site had a similar number of species as the natural site, our biodiversity benchmark, then we could conclude that the archaeological site has high biodiversity.  If the archaeological site had similar biodiversity as the modern olive grove then we would presume that the archaeological site had low biodiversity.

Greek Tortoise

We found that archaeological sites had a higher percentage of green vegetation cover (insect food), vertical rock habitat (ruins), and topographically complex habitat than both the natural site and the modern olive grove.  We also found that the tree structure between the archaeological and natural site were similar.  Essentially, the ruins of empires are an oasis of vertical rock habitat, within the midst of a forest-like, old growth olive grove.  As we surveyed the archaeological site, we observed birds perched on top of the columns, including species like the little owl using the unique vantage point to scope out prey, while male black-eared wheatears advertised their territories to other potentially intruding males and receptive females.  Some species, such as the rock loving, starred agama lizard and Levant fan-footed gecko, even had a higher density of lizards at the archaeological site.  The tall columns and walls housed multiple tenants of Levant fan-footed geckos and starred agamas, which we witnessed crawling out from the cracks at different heights to catch the morning’s first rays of sunshine.  We even saw a few Greek tortoises, a species that is endangered in Jordan and globally threatened, feeding on the abundance of wildlife flowers that grew between the ruins.

RSCN Ecologist Sufian Malkawi collecting data

Finally, I answered the question from my childhood.  Archaeological sites do have biological value, according to our findings, as they have a similar number of bird and reptile species as the natural site in the study.  This high biodiversity is due to the archaeological site’s unnaturally high density of rock habitat as a result of the forest of columns, dilapidated walls, and old growth olive trees.  In addition, archaeological sites in Jordan are biologically important because these sites are large, protected, and occur in areas that receive high levels of rainfall.  The Greeks and Romans at one time ruled Umm Qais, but reptiles are the new rulers of these ruins.

By Dr. Omar Attum

A self-taught photographer, Dr. Attum’s credits include National Geographic Magazine, The Courier Journal, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Shutterbug, Egypt Today, and The Jordan Times.  He also published his photographs from all of his Sinai exhibitions into the book, Sinai: Landscape and Nature in Egypt’s Wilderness (AUC press 2014).

He is on the editorial board of the journals, Journal for Nature Conservation and Herpetological Conservation & Biology.  He is also on the Scientific Committee of Saharan Conservation Fund. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Louisville where he studied which types of wildlife were going to survive desertification in Sinai, Egypt. He is a two-time Fulbright fellow and was a recipient of a Blue Earth Alliance Photography fellowship.

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