Gone But Not Forgotten: Bring Back North American Elephants
TUCSON, ARIZ. — Many an imagination has been enchanted by visions of wild America reconstructed by writers and painters of old.
A few imaginative people, such as University of Arizona geosciences Professor Emeritus Paul S. Martin, go beyond this by encouraging a restocking of modern-day plains with animals of the past. Martin envisions reserves with buffalo roaming, deer and antelope playing, elephants browsing.
This might not sound like the range that greeted Lewis and Clark. But it does represent the wilderness of 13,000 years ago that confronted the earliest settlers into North America, Martin points out. And he would like to see pockets of modern America that reflect the pachyderm presence once again.
Martin will be talking about his vision on June 26 during the 25th anniversary celebration of the discovery of Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D. The site hosts a museum where the100,000 visitors each year can see the continuing excavation as well as some results of the effort — including some complete skeletons of the roughly 50 mammoths preserved when they fell into a slippery sinkhole 26,000 years ago.
“I want to do honor to my country by appreciating its true nature,” Martin said. “We´ve been misled into thinking this is the home of the deer and the buffalo and the moose. That´s true in historical time but in evolutionary time this land is the home of elephants, camels, horses and ground sloths.”
In a paper called “Bring Back the Elephants,” published in the spring issue of Wild Earth, Martin and co-author David A. Burney note that the disappearance of North American elephants about 13,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene occurred almost yesterday in the geological time frame.
“As a result of the late Pleistocene extinctions we live in a continent of ghosts, their prehistoric presence hinted at by sweet-tasting bean pods of mesquite, honey locusts and monkey ear. Such fruits are the bait evolved to attract native animals that served a seed dispersers,” they wrote in Wild Earth. “African and Asian elephants are the only members of the order of Proboscidea that were not lost in the megafaunal crisis of the late Pleistocene.”
Seven species of Proboscidea, including wooly mammoths, dwarf mammoths and mastadons, suddenly died off during this crisis. After a million years or more of successful existence, they faded into evolutionary history in perhaps a few hundred years, evidence indicates. What´s more, the rapid cycle of extinctions occurred just as the Clovis people were settling North America on a southward journey that began at the Bering Straight, a now-flooded peninsula that connected Alaska and Siberia.
Martin considers the timing more than coincidence. He is one of the main proponents of the theory that humans were the catalysts for the sudden wave of extinctions of large North American mammals. Although there is no smoking gun to prove the connection, there are spear tips found in fossil mammoths. For instance, a mammoth skeleton unearthed in Naco, Ariz., contained eight spear points identified as having Clovis origin.
“This one got away. There were only these beautiful Clovis points that indicated it had been hunted and speared but not butchered and cooked,” Martin explained. Part of the skeleton is now on display in the Arizona State Museum located on the UA campus in Tucson.
Thanks to cave paintings in Europe by ancient artists, scientists know what mammoths looked like, with long fur making them appear superficially different than the elephants that have so far survived into modern times.
Their behavior, too, probably differed only superficially from that of modern elephants, which are considered “super keystone species” by some conservation biologists because of their ability to transform the environment. Elephants dismantle trees, turning forest into the savannah that can support a variety of large grazing mammals and their predators.
Martin suspects that the disappearance of the North American elephants, actively hunted by our ancestors, could have altered the environment enough to precipitate the extinction of other range animals. Along with the late Pleistocene elephants, dozens of other large mammal species disappeared from North America at that time, including ground sloths, horses, the saber-tooth tiger and the dire wolf.
Gray wolves — remnants who survived the Pleistocene but were recently driven to near extinction in the United States by ranchers and farmers — are being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Scientists abroad are repopulating an area of Siberia dubbed Pleistocene Park with horses, musk ox and bison. Reintroducing elephants into North America could be the next step in efforts to restore the wilderness of old.
“If we want the ´super keystone species,´ second only to our own in their capability for altering habitats and faunas, we should start with the restoration of living proboscideans — with African and Asian elephants,” Martin states.