Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Pleistocene Park

Always wanted to see the deer and the antelope play? Or run from lions? Articles by Nicholas Kristof and Alan Burdick, both in the NY Times, comment favorably on a proposal, announced this past August in the journal Nature, for "Pleistocene re-wilding."
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The idea, in brief, is to re-populate parts of the the United States with the African relatives of Pleistocene era species that once inhabited North America. Is it a good idea? I have no idea, although I'm suspicious. These species haven't existed on this continent for some 13,000 years. While that's a blink of the eye in terms of species evolution, my guess is that when it comes to ecosystems, 13,000 is a much more substantial number. I'd expect that the introduction of African megafauna into existing North American ecosystems would be a considerable challenge, to say the least.

However, the idea does have a certain Hollywood appeal to it - of both the PG and the R variety. On the one hand, there's the prospect of kids (and parents) clamoring to take a vacation to New Mexico, which would be a nice change of pace for the tourism industry there. On the other hand, there's the possibility of a herd of elephants stampeding through downtown Santa Fe, which would be...bad.

I suspect that, in the end, this will be a political decision. In an era where we can, if we decide it's politically expedient, convince ourselves that global warming doesn't even exist, there seems little that scientific skepticism can do to stop Pleistocene re-wilding if the proposal has the votes.

Finally, just to prove my complete ignorance on this topic, Kristof's column hypothesizes a "Pleistocene reserve on, say, private land in North Dakota." Having never been to North Dakota (or Africa) I can't say for certain, but wouldn't this be a bit of an adjustment for many of these animals? Are lions accustomed to mean temperatures of eight degrees Fahrenheit (Bismark in January)? Just curious...

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