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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.