Thursday, August 18, 2005

Re-wilding America

Once upon a time in the Pleistocene Era (between about 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago) some really big animals (the technical term for which is 'megafauna') roamed North America. Cheetahs and lions roamed the western plains, hunting pronghorns, camels, and elephants.

Nearly all of the North American megafauna species became extinct about 13,000 years ago - not coincidentally, about the time humans arrived in the area. This disappearance 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. The human extermination of 'top predators' such as cheetahs, lions, and wolves, has lead to countless problems farther down the food chain, which many scientist believe could best be remedied by resoring top predators and megafauna to the ecosystem.

No, I'm not crazy and yes, you read that correctly. A recent article in Nature magazine discussed the idea of repopulating North America with megafauna. Although many of the specific species are long extinct, they have close relatives among the lions, cheetahs, elephants, camels, and antelopes of Africa and Asia. In addition to strengthening North American ecosystems, this would provide a safety net for the world's megafauna, which survives today almost exclusively in Africa.

While this would certainly not solve all of North America's ecological problems (global warming, habitat loss, etc.), it is an idea that, at the least, bears consideration.

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