Each July, along the dappled stream banks of Kodiak Island, just off the Alaska coast, a weedy looking wildflower produces a few dark-blue hooded blossoms. There is nothing particularly memorable about the appearance of Aconitum delphinifolum. Its leaves are thin and rather spiky. Its scrawny-looking stem cannot hold the weight of its flowers: its neighbors keep it upright. But this eminently forgettable looking plant, a member of the buttercup family, possesses a dark secret. Aconitum delphinifolum contains a toxin capable of killing one of the world’s largest animals, a 40-ton humpback whale. Indeed, the local Alutiiq people have long understood this: their whalers once enlisted it as a lethal weapon.
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Photo: Humpback whales, NOAA Sanctuary collection, Dr. Louis Herman
I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas. Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants. So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.
My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots. Yes, they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs, but in the early decades of contact, before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns, these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered. In Jamaica alone, for example, the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Continue reading