10 August 2007


15,000 years ago, the plains of North America looked like the Serengeti - large herds of animals everywhere. Then the animals started dying - the native American horses and camels, several types of large ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, giant beavers, odd antelope species similar to pronghorn, short-faced bears larger than our present grizzly, sabertoothed and scimitar cats, and the American lion (which was larger than the current African lion), amongst others. Some blame the climate changes at the end of the last ice age, some blame the humans who invaded from Asia around that time, some suggest other causes, some say all of the above. Whatever the cause(s), some 40 species from 30 genera of large animals ("megafauna") became extinct.

This article from the Cornell University News Service was published two years ago:
If Cornell University researchers and their colleagues have their way, cheetahs, lions, elephants, camels and other large wild animals may soon roam parts of North America.

"If we only have 10 minutes to present this idea, people think we're nuts," said Harry Greene, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell. "But if people hear the one-hour version, they realize they haven't thought about this as much as we have. Right now, we are investing all of our megafauna hopes on one continent -- Africa."

Greene and a number of other highly eminent ecologists and conservationists have authored a paper, published in the latest issue of Nature (Vol. 436, No. 7053), advocating the establishment of vast ecological history parks with large mammals, mostly from Africa, that are close relatives or counterparts to extinct Pleistocene-period animals that once roamed the Great Plains.

The plan, which is called Pleistocene rewilding and is intended to be a proactive approach to conservation, would help revitalize ecosystems that have been compromised by the extinction of many of the continent's large mammals, many of them predators. It would also offer ecotourism and land-management jobs to help the struggling economies in rural areas of the Great Plains and Southwest.


For example, 4 million years of being hunted by the now extinct American cheetah (Acinonyx trumani) was probably why the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) -- an antelopelike animal found throughout the deserts of the American Southwest -- developed such blinding speed, clocking in at around 60 miles an hour. Introducing free-ranging African cheetahs back to the Southwest, the scientists assert, could restore strong interactions with pronghorns and provide endangered cheetahs with new habitat.

Other living species that are counterparts to 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).

Now it's being propsed that something similar be done in Europe. ZUI this article from the May issue of Scientific American:
In many ways, Europe is a more obvious candidate for re-wilding than North America. The reason: a large portion of species lost in the Americas do not have any close living relatives. Europe has also seen its share of extinctions, including the scimitar cat, cave bear, woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, steppe rhinoceros and giant deer, but many of Europe's lost species still survive or have close wild or domestic relatives elsewhere in the world. Europe also has a historical advantage: The disappearance of its megafauna to a large extent occurred more recently than in North America, with many species persisting well into the Holocene.

Europe has already succeeded in reintroducing some previously extinct species. The bison, which was extinct in the wild in the early 20th century, has now been reestablished in scattered populations across eastern Europe. Small populations of musk ox that lived in Europe in cold climates until the late glacial period have been successfully reintroduced in Scandinavia's mountains. The fallow deer, the closest relative of the now extinct giant deer, survived marginally into Europe's Holocene, but persisted in Asia Minor. After several millennia of reintroductions, the animal now prospers in most European countries. The successful re-wilding of these species bodes well for larger scale projects.

But re-wilding initiatives in Europe must also include reinvigoration of megafauna populations already there that have suffered severe range constriction. Among them: the wolf, brown bear, lynx and moose. Scientists should also consider reintroducing 11 additional megafauna species: the Asiatic lion, leopard, spotted hyena, dhole, horse, cattle, Asiatic wild ass, Asiatic elephant, hippopotamus, water buffalo and hairy rhinoceros.

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