Thursday, August 18, 2005

The lions of America....   posted by Razib @ 8/18/2005 12:47:00 PM

There is going to be publication of a piece in Nature (sometime today) that argues for the reintroduction of megafauna to North American by transplanting African speices. This article in the Economist has an overview, while CNN also is reporting on this. The only thing I would like to add is that I think the analogy to the introduction of rabbits (to Australia) is really dumb. First, megafauna have been part of the North American landscape before, there are all sorts of plants that seem to assume that there are still giant ground sloths hanging around to disperse their seeds (10,000 years is a long time, but not that long). Second, the species they are going to introduce (possibly) are all relatively slow reproducers. If lions really started eating a lot of people, well, killing them wouldn't be that difficult. And they would eat some people, there have been problems with this issue in Boulder, CO, where a few parks have had three year olds snatched away by cougars. In another incident a jogger was ambushed and eaten (of course, usually the issue is the consumption of cats and dogs, not people). As if to emphasize this problem, Nature has an article up about an increase in lion attacks in Africa. That being said, I'm not sure if the people of South Dakota (for example) would really mind the introduction of megafauna, I've been through that state and there really isn't much to see between Rapid City and Sioux Falls (the cold winters would be an issue in South Dakota of course, but lions were found in Southern Europe and in the highlands of the Middle East into historic times). Certainly it could bring some tourism. I suspect people who could afford to go to Africa for a safari would still prefer the real thing.

Update: If you want big European red deer antlers, go to New Zealand. You want to see wild camels? There are 500,000 in Australia! You want to see wild horses? Look in the American West, the Eurasian steppes.

Update II: Josh Donlan (leader author of the paper above) has just posted his ideas over at Slate. I think it is a sober and realistic plan. I doubt it will happen for a variety of reasons, primarily because of the synergy of the utopian Nature Is Always Right (even when it isn't nature) sentiment from progressives and Kill the Critters rural folk. I lived among the Kill the Critters folk for many years, and I understand their concerns, it is pretty much common sense, if it kills humans, or it kills human livestock, kill it, right? Well, that depends. With fewer and fewer rural people in America (and even most "rural" people don't live in the country, they live in towns, less than 2% of Americans live on farms for instance) the ineffable beauty of nature appeals a lot more to those who live their days in an environment of black top rather than black buttes. On the other hand, there are those who I suspect would label themselves progressives and environmentalists who are making somewhat strained, and in my opinion disingenuous, claims. For example, I don't particularly see why all of a sudden they care what ranchers would think about carnivores, it didn't matter when wolves were reintroduced. The argument that it would drain the demand for African eco-tourism also strikes me as false, if you are the type who wants to see the African wilds, are you really going to be satisfied with New Mexico neo-savannah? The people who might take "safari" trips to the new Wild West would most likely be the types who would visit the San Diego Zoo or even local petting zoos. They would be two different demographics. Then of course there are there are the particular ecological objections, for instance, climate. First, many of these megafauna, or, their analogs, were indigenous to this continent at some point. Second, many of these creatures have wide ranges. Third, microevolution can work wonders, and one could certainly selection bias the parental population so that its various characteristics are more optimal for the New World.

Overall, this isn't going to happen. Nevertheless, here is another example of metaphors people don't live by, selective use of the precautionary principle and of course strained analogies. The fact is that we live in an engineered and unnatural world, there isn't much about it that is "in balance" as it "should be." Nature isn't that much different, there are always metastabilities and requilibrations going on all around us. Relaxed selection on the pronghorn antelope after the extinction of the North American cheetah has not done all its work so that things are in "balance" again....

Update III: John Hawks comments. I made a few comments at Sepia Mutiny (nothing new, but if you are curious).

Update IV: Steve Biodio has two comments worth reading.