August 18, 2005

"Pleistocene re-wilding."

What?!
[The disappearance of very large animals in North Amerca in the last 13,000 year has] left glaring gaps in the complex web of interactions, upon which a healthy ecosystem depends. The pronghorn, for example, has lost its natural predator and only its startling speed - of up to about 60mph - hints at its now forgotten foe.

By introducing living counterparts to the extinct animals, the researchers say, these voids could be filled. So, by introducing free-ranging African cheetahs to the Southwest, strong interactions with pronghorns could be restored, while providing cheetahs with a new habitat.

Other living species that could "stand in" for Pleistocene-era animals in North America include feral horses (Equus caballus), wild asses (E. asinus), Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus), Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants and lions (Panthera leo).

"Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators," said lead author Josh Donlan, of Cornell University. "There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realising predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions."

Crazy! Or do I just have an attitude problem?

UPDATE: More on the subject from Tim Worstall and Glenn Reynolds.

50 comments:

FFA Queen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Drethelin said...

apart from practical considerations, I see no problem with this idea.

On the other hand, practical considerations are fucking huge. Do you want cheetah's chasing down your car on the interstate?

Our society is not built to handle large wild populations of predators. In the past what we've always done is kill them all.

bill said...

Nah, not crazy. I think it's a cool idea while pretty much being the definition of the "law of unintended consuquences." Nope, nothing could ever go wrong with this plan.

See your post on minicooper flavored Friskies.

See "Jurassic Park."

See cloning mammoths. We could just put a fence around Canada.

Tonya said...

I've been wondering about that scene in Six Feet Under where the death-du-jour is caused by someone being attacked by a big cat (cheetah?). So, I guess the idea is that this sort of thing would occur more frequently. And how would people adapt to this new threat? Would we all start carrying rifles around for protection? Or would we flock to big cities, on the assumption that there would be fewer wild asses there than in more suburban or rural communities?

I agree with you Ann. It is crazy.

JZ said...

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

JZ said...

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature

bill said...

Note currently being discussed on Slashdot.

Troy said...

Perhaps we could separate a group of children and raise them (intentionally as opposed to the more common negligent barbarian raising) as barbarians. We could reinstate them as Vikings, Visigoths, Vandals, etc. -- sort of a Dark Ages re-wilding. Oh wait... we already have that and much of the civilized world (make that Pronghorns) is going to be dragged down and eaten because we've forgotten how to deal with predators.

Hmmmm....

Cheetahs would be cool. Running with my car across Arizona on I-40 them going 70 mph and me going 80. It might cut down on hitchhiking though.

Kathy Herrmann said...

Sounds interesting in concept. Humans have a poor success rate, though, when it comes to mucking with Mother Nature. She shows a damned poor sense of humor.

Moving cheetahs is too cumbersome though, what with travel arrangements and such. Let's just find DNA samples from the pronghorns former predators and clone them!

sbgloss said...

One word: ecotone. (I know there are some SFU fans on this blog...)

Independent George said...

Did anybody else thing of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle immediately upon reading this? Anyone? Anyone?

bill said...

iGeorge: I thought of Logan's Run and lions running around Washington, D.C.

Ann Althouse said...

How about "12 Monkeys."

Roger Sweeny said...

Ann,

There is actually something deep going on here. In general, ecologists have said, "When living things exist together for long periods without humans, they develop all sorts of interdependencies and produce something greater than themselves: "a healthy ecosystem." When humans come along and change things, they make it unhealthy. Making it healthy then consists of making it as much as possible like it was before humans came along.

Add to this the fact that humans in the Americas killed off an extraordinary variety of large animals at the end of the last Ice Age, and it is only logical to say that it is necesssary to replace them to restore "health."

Such a concept of health may sound crazy, and perhaps it is, but it is part of the unexamined mental furniture of most people in natural history--and just about everyone in the community of environmental activists.

If you are interested in the sartorial accomplishments of the emperor, ask why it is "unhealthy" to have fast-running pronghorns without fast-running predators and you will be told (after separating out the verbiage), "because it wasn't that way before humans came along."

Ann Althouse said...

Well put, Roger. Wouldn't it mean that we humans also need some predators running after us?

AJ Lynch said...

Amazing - how can I get paid to come up with thoughtful but stupid ideas like this?? I sure have an endless supply of stupid ideas.

And remember these ideas are from the same crowd that wants to take away your right to smoke, be obese, etc. BUT they see no problem if one of their predators eats you.

Bill R said...

This reminds me of the scene in "Defending your Life" when Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep are in the past lives pavilion and Streep asks Brooks who he was (he was being chased by a lion) and he answers "lunch!"

It would be a good place for PETA and ALF to put their theories to test.

Nature: Red in tooth and claw

Kathy Herrmann said...

Ann--I think the predator problem for humans is being addressed in New Jersey. Lottsa black bears. Heh heh.

Jokes aside, let's be fair to humans. Any preponderance of an animal species can tilt the balance of nature. Look at the rise in deer populations and their corresponding destruction of forests.

Hmmm. That brings us back to the cheetahs, doesn't it?

EddieP said...

There is already a surplus of "wild asses" (E. asinus). Many of them show up in your comments section from time to time.

Steven said...

Not crazy, just faith-based.

If human beings are merely another naturally-evolved animal, what we do is as natural as what any other evolved animal does. The logically necessary counterpart to declaring human actions to be "artificial" (or "unnatural") is the declaration that humans are not natural beings, but supernatural ones. Which is inherently a religious position.

Now, of course, there are two major sub-varieties of this religious doctrine. The first holds that man has a right to fill the earth and subdue it; in this case, the only ways human action can be bad is if they either hurt supernatural beings (including humans) or defy the will of some other supernatural beings that should be obeyed (like a god).

The second manifestation is that supernatural interference with nature is wrong -- call it the anti-Gnostic position, since the Gnostics believed the material world was evil and the spirit good. This manifestation has its own major sub-sects. The first is that the road to righteousness is for supernatural beings to cease interfering with Nature, period; the second is that supernatural beings should repair the damage they've done as best they can, and then cease interfering with Nature.

The Pleistocene re-wilders are, obviously, members of the restorationist sect of the Antignostic religion. By the tenents of their religion, the reasoning behind their position is absolutely sane; from most other sets of premises, of course, it will look crazy.

(Of course, they'll deny that their position is religious, but then they'll have a hard time explaining waht makes extinction-by-humans any less natural than, say, the extinction of the South American marsupials at the teeth of North American placental animals before humanity existed. Generally, they'll do this by rejecting the label supernatural while still treating intelligence as if it were a supernatural attribute.)

Kev said...

"And remember these ideas are from the same crowd that wants to take away your right to smoke, be obese, etc. BUT they see no problem if one of their predators eats you."

And yet, if you smoke, you're more likely to be caught by the predator, and if you're obese, there's more of you for the predator to eat. ;-)

Also, my friends and I were talking about this story at dinner tonight, and we realized what the newest rural teenage fad would be if this came to pass: Lion-tipping!

Carl said...

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I'm reminded of those wise words of Krusty the Clown: "Guns are for self-defense, hunting dangerous and delicious animals, and keeping
the king of England out of your face."

Dang tootin'. Step off my grill, g'rilla, and YOU keep back, too, bony prince Charlie. I've got the drop on both of yez.

Matt said...

I've wanted to hunt dangerous game in Africa ever since I was a kid reading Peter Capstick, Robert Ruark, Hemingway, etc. I, for one, would relish the opportunity to hunt lion and elephant without the trouble and extreme expense (not to mention exposure to unstable political systems, nasty diseases, a wide variety of venemous snakes, etc.) entailed in a trip to Africa. If they brought in Cape buffalo, leopards and rhinos, it'd be downright perfect -- though, somehow, I don't think these people would approve of my plan to hunt their imports. (That of course would be rather hypocritical of them, since "predation is a natural role.")

But hunting opportunities aside, it's not intuitively obvious to me that making this country more like Africa would be a good thing . . .

Of course it's crazy, Ann!

Duke Kahanamoku said...

These scholars are mining a deep truth that I hold to be increasingly and excessively self evident: that stupidity is a natural role. These idiots serve as intellectual prey for those with more robust mental functions. In fact, these people are so freaking stupid, they can serve as intellectual prey for about 99% of the global population and are therefore likely to become extinct themselves.

Therefore, we need to put them on the endangered species list to protect their unique biodiversity. There's no use beating a dead horse except for the shear pleasure of it.

Bill Dalasio said...

Ms. Althouse,

Actually, I think this suggestion is more pernicious than has been suggested by many of the commenters. We are able to live on the standard we do because we have successfully subdued our environment. Food production, transportation, energy, etc. are available to us in fairly abundant quantities because their generation isn't a life threatening activity. Of course, in a world where predators, or even unintentionally destructive animals like elephants are free to roam at will, that danger level goes up by an order of magnitude. Econ 101 dictates that the result will be diminished availability of most resources. The diminished availability of resources would, I'm afraid to say, end up in people dying for lack of basic needs.

Silicon Valley Jim said...

I think that it's a wonderful idea. I also think that the first place that we should try it is Ithaca, New York.

Peg C. said...

SVJ,

Detroit, San Francisco and L.A. (And it goes without saying, D.C.)

Aaron - Free Will said...

On the other hand, practical considerations are fucking huge. Do you want cheetah's chasing down your car on the interstate?

YEAH! And just think, you can put some poor sap on a moped and make 'em race. Or would we flock to big cities, on the assumption that there would be fewer wild asses there than in more suburban or rural communities?

There aren't, I've tried it.

Joking aside, these creatures would be protected, and that would make it their world, with us just living in it. That would work about as well as it does with the bears of Snowmass Village. Not cool.

Charlie (Colorado) said...

Jeeez, folks ... with the exception of SVJim's comment about Ithaca (I'm in favor of pretty much anything you could do to Ithaca) I think you're getting a little overwrought here.

First of all, there's probably 200,000 square miles or more of land out here in the Great Plans that is either no longer of any use, or is being used to grow price-supported crops that have become sinecures for agrobusinesses. Why not put it to some amusing use? I personally would like to see buffalo herds that go to the horizon for a man on horseback, like my great grandfather did.

Second, it's not like we don't have largish predators out here already. Okay, no lions, but we've got hard winters out here --- I don't think lions do well in three feet of snow.

"Pleistocene Park" sounds like fun to me.

Kirk Parker said...

"people are going to have to take precautions."

Something tells me that he's not talk about this kind of precaution.

Matt said...

kparker,

Personally, I was thinking of this kind of precaution. Of course it'd require a second mortgage, but what the heck . . .

Ron said...

All such ideas should be tried first next to the originator's Grandkid's home before inflicted on the public at large.

Chris said...

I think it's a great idea, but far too timid. The most healthy ecosystem the world has seen flourished 60-odd million years ago until it was wiped out by deus ex machina. So I'm for reintroducing T-Rex.

Firehand said...

As far as Charles and his land 'no longer of any use'? Oh, God...

The idea of taking species from another continent and putting them here to try and replace NOW species that became extinct a long damn time ago in an environment that no longer exists... as someone once put it, Hell no!

Especially since the idiots proposing this would insist the critters not be molested no matter how many of us lousy humans were stomped/gored/eaten.

Andrew Scotia said...

The late population ecologist, Garrett Hardin once wrote an article in which he proposed that wilderness should really be wilderness. "Enter at own risk", on foot and good luck if you got in trouble since no government agency was going to pull you out by helicopter. The Ecologist, 2/74.

I don't have any problem with this proposal. I've been stalked by a cougar and I think the adrenaline rush probably added years to my life. No known incidents of cheetah attack. Of course, the one that spent about ten minutes licking my hand and arm could have been just tasting me. You think your kitty has a rough tongue, whoa.

Interesting proposal. I have some candidates to play the role of Cornell Wilde in a reality show of Naked Prey. Darwin should also be encouraged.

Mitch said...

I recall an early skull showing damage that was attributed to humanoid-on-humanoid violence. Tsk-tsk. Then someone had the bright idea of fitting the holes to leopard canine teeth, and found a perfect match. Even today, they prey on humans, especially infants and children. Let's not borrow trouble. Elephants, horses, camels, and cheetahs have all learned to live with us, though, and would be decent candidates for introduction.

More to the point, what are the prospects for getting some of the great apes into New World tropical habitats? We would not have the shaky pretense of Pleistocene rehabilitation, but it would at least give them a second chance.

GordoM said...

well how 'bout this. If repredication is OK because it is "natural" then wouldn't we also support the repredication of large cities like New Your? After all, preditory crimes were more common during the Dinkins et al days and the left denies that governmental/social policies were at fault. So it must have been the natural way we animals, no different from other animals per the Darwin-left, would behave without political/social interference.

gs said...

Glenn Reynolds' point of view is consistent with many of the preceding comments; I keep the link in a very small folder of bookmarks worth revisiting ten years hence. The Nature article which the BBC mentions is here (free for the time being).

Ann writes,"Wouldn't it mean that we humans also need some predators running after us?" Are we talking about nonhuman predators, or does al Qaeda count? Consider what would have happened to al Qaeda if the America & Europe of 100 years ago had access to modern technology, but also consider WWI with nuclear weapons. Messrs. Dolan, Greene, et al. are an example of what happens to humans when predation is not a threat for a very small number of generations; another example is that guy who socialized with grizzly bears until one ate him.

What would Teddy Roosevelt have said? A hunter and conservationist both, he might have approved of some form of rewilding. Then again, Teddy did not envision human beings making themselves into unarmed prey.

I don't hear of many hunter-conservationists these days. The Nature article's co-author Harry Greene, whom the BBC quotes, has a site here. Professor Greene writes that to enter the Cornell graduate program in ecology, "an applicant must (1) have an identified major professor willing to the sponsor them and (2) be among those accepted by the EEB admission committee." Sounds like a system in which ideological filtering could take root. (Co-author C. Josh Donlan's site notes that he's been through a program for environmentally "visionary, action-oriented emerging leaders". No comment.)

Peter said...

Ever since we got married my wife wouldn't let me have a reaaly big rifle on the grounds that there's nothing 'round here to shoot with something that big and expensive. When even reloads or handloads cost over two dollars per round, well, she's one the argument.
Go ahead and import the big critters, I've been wanting a Ruger Model 77 in .416 Rigby forever.

Kirk Parker said...

Matt,

Not only would I be vastly ahead of you and your Holland and Holland work of art, dollar-wise, I'll still be way ahead after I pay the orthopedic surgeon to put my hand back together after firing the @#@*#@)! lighweight "Mountain Gun". :-)

Andrew,

Hardin's wilderness-as-Wilderness would be fine with me as long as no government had the ability to prevent those venturing out there from preparing and comporting themselves as they saw fit. I would conjecture, however, that Big Game Hunting is still popular enough that we'd just replicate what happened the first time around.

GS,

"I don't hear of many hunter-conservationists these days." Funny, all the serious hunters I know are quite into conservation. Or you only thinking of "public intellectuals" holding forth in this manner?

gs said...

kparker,

Thanks for pointing out the potential misinterpretation. Yes, I was alluding to 'public intellectuals'. I have never hunted, but it would surprise me if most serious hunters were not in the T.R. mold.

The American right has created a successful subculture of think tanks and NGOs. There may be a niche for sane decent conservationist organizations or blogs that accept humanity's predatory dimension.

BigDirigible said...

Enough of this "nature-as-petting-zoo" rubbish. We already have more predators than we need.

Here's an unpublicized story from that tourist haven, Cape Cod, only a hundred miles from Boston. There is an animal farm there with all sorts of non-native fauna - monkeys smart enough to get out of their cages routinely, bears, exotic deer, etc. The most dangerous animal by far was a leopard. Predictably (I knew the owners, and this was predictable, all right) the leopard escaped one night. By morning it had crawled back to the farm, ripped to shreds. Within a few hours it was dead.

Nobody ever did figure out just what is lurking in the woods down there which can do that to an adult leopard. A pack of dogs could, but due to the leash laws we don't have packs of dogs. Whatever it was, that's enough Mother Nature for me.

Robert Schwartz said...

One consequence would be that we would all pack heat when going abroad outside the city walls. Make for a much more peaceful country.

SCC said...

Perhaps we could use this as a cheap form of border control? If we introduce some large predators along the border, we would be assured of only receiving the finest and fleetest of foot of illegal immigrants.

And then perhaps on some of our more liberal campuses to weed out the slower and more unhealthy professors. Tenure just got a brand new pair of gym shoes baby!

corbusier said...

Sounds almost like Jurassic Park, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched.
I've posted my own impressions on this story at my new blog www.architectureandmorality.blogspot.com in response to Tim Worstall's article at Tech Central Station.

Andrew Scotia said...

SCC:
Re: Border Control by Predation.

There are reports and photos that indicate the jaguar is begining to cross the border into its' former range in Arizona and, possibly California. In California the paleo record indicates a range to near the Oregon border. Last jaguar taken in California was in the Palm Springs area.

SCC said...

Goody. It's happening already then. Now if we could just "re-wild" Cambridge.

P. K. Scott said...

Remember the cane toads. Whenever humans mess with an ecosystem by adding an exotic species, it never works out.

DJ said...

I wouldn't mind seeing Cheeta's, but would anyone seriously think about reintroducing elephants into an environment they don't currently inhabbit? Elephants modify the environment almost as destructively as humans do, and fences don't work.

joe-6-pack said...

I haven't had time to read all of the posts, so if I repeat someone else's comments, it is by accident.

This sounds like someone's pipedream (or is that a bong dream?).

Have we heard of the concept of unintended consequences?

When the large mammals disappeared during the Late Pleistocene from North America, the pertinent ecosystems did not remain static, they continued to change through natural processes and by human influences. You just can't take exotic animals from another continent and "plug them into" these ecosystems. What is this going to do to our existing mammal and other remaining wild populations? Will prairie dogs know how to deal with hyenas?

I will have to do some more reading, but I think this is a really bad idea.