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Should the Great Plains become Pleistocene Park?

Illustration for article titled Should the Great Plains become Pleistocene Park?

So we've gone to all that trouble to clone ourselves a mammoth. Let's say we even give it a mate. What do we do with them? Perhaps the mammoths, and other creatures, shouldn't just be in zoos and captive breeding programs. Instead, maybe we could recreate a whole ecosystem from scratch.


Top image: Rpongsaj on Flickr.

Right now, people are working on ways to bring back megafauna, the giants that roamed the Earth in pre-historic times. This, possibly, could be an irony, since humans may have been the ones to wipe out the megafauna to begin with. The idea that the bigger animals were hunted out by humans, rather than killed off by environmental fluctuations, is not undisputed. If it's true, however, and we took them out in the first place, wouldn't it be great if we brought them all back?

Illustration for article titled Should the Great Plains become Pleistocene Park?

And that is actually a less crazy dream than what Paul S Martin, a geoscientist, dreamed up for the Great Plains. He, as well as a few other maverick ecologists, believed that introduction of large herbivores and large predators to the plains would be an ecological boon. Throughout his life he argued tirelessly that lions and cheetahs, as well as elephants, should be introduced into the grasslands of the southwestern states. The large predators, he believed, would pick off the old and sick grazers and might also either scare away, or make a meal of, the smaller predators that preyed on baby animals. He pointed to the fact that many grazing animals, including the endangered ones like pronghorns, did better after the reintroduction of wolves drove away coyotes. Meanwhile larger grazers would, now that massive bison herds are gone, keep the grass down and distract other large predators. But Martin was born in 1928, and we are now in the early 21st, and cloning these creatures is a possibility — however remote. There's no reason to introduce non-native species if we can re-introduce native ones.

Illustration for article titled Should the Great Plains become Pleistocene Park?

There's no shortage of grass, and the ecosystem is built from the grass up. Mammoths, mastodons, huge prehistoric horses and elks, can all roam the plains getting meals as they go along. Where they go, predators follow. Predating saber toothed cats, short-faced bears, and (Game of Thrones fans should love this one) direwolves would follow them. These apex predators would thin herds of their sickest animals, leave plenty leftover for the scavengers, and either drive off or eat some of the smaller predators that manage to sneak past the defenses of larger herds now.


So we've covered elephants and lions, but what about, say . . . giraffes? What kind of animal will replace those tall, graceful herbivores? How about a bear, or SUV, sized ground sloth? While mammoths can head up toward the north, giant sloths lumber down to the grasslands and sparse trees of the extreme southwest and continue downwards (getting bigger as the climate gets wetter) into South America. While mammoths might be ill-equipped to deal with hotter temperatures, these huge slow-moving herbivores used to dine on desert cacti and yucca, as well as whatever small trees grow in the area. There are no huge grazers there now.

Illustration for article titled Should the Great Plains become Pleistocene Park?

Replacing the big, armored grass eaters, like the rhino, especially in the south, should be the glyptodon. This is another animal that probably was forcefully winked out of existence by humans. A giant relative of the armadillo, it was a grass eater that roamed the southwest, Florida, and South America. They were the size of Volkswagon Beetles, with tent-sized 'shells' and armored tails and thick skulls, but they moved easily through hot environments and clipped vegetation and scrub. Between these slow grazers, the giant herbivores, and the predators, the American Plains from the Dakotas to Arizona and Texas could look like a back-in-time version of the African savanna again, and they could very well be better off for it. I know I would move inland, if I could see mammoths tromping around.

Top Image: Bram

Dire Wolf Image: Cory Doctorow

Glyptodon Image: Naturhistorisches Museum Wien
Via Once and Future Giants, University of Georgia, Fossil Treasure of Florida.


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Dances with Peeps

Has the introduction of a foreign species ever worked out well? I mean, there must be at least one case of it, but all I can think of are the epic failures.