Pleistocene Park

Melbourne, Florida. It’s an early starry night on the Central Florida Coast. Venus sits off to the west, soaking up the last rays of the sun. Orion, my guardian, is directly overhead – forever chasing his Pleiades, while Sirius picks up the rear.

This past month has been a good time to think about Florida wildlife. I did an appliance commercial in Orlando last week and ended up driving there round trip from Melbourne for two days. Boca rode with me the first day and directed me along rural back roads he referred to as the “Cow Way”. Due to its remote feeling, I opted for this route for all four legs of my trip and was rewarded with some great roadside views of wildlife. There were raccoons, an armadillo, a bald eagle, and an entire flock of wild turkey, white-tailed deer and a team of sandhill cranes grazing in the roadside grass. One afternoon, back at home, I observed a mother osprey taking its fledgling out for a first flight. The young raptor was all screeches and manic flapping, while its elegant mother glided effortlessly below. I also saw a number of wild boars along the highway. And I don’t mean I saw two pigs. There were at least ten full size adults moving along with 20-30 tiny piglets that were running circles around their elders. Most of these were black as coal, but others were a shade of auburn that could almost be described as bright. I have a couple Florida friends who are big boar hunters – rifles, bows, ATVs, orange camouflage, the whole works. But I personally had not seen these animals before. It was somewhat of a surprise to encounter them grazing in the open, seemingly oblivious to human presence.

But wild boars are not native to Florida. They were introduced from Europe and in fact are a major pest. Ecologists claim that these animals are driving a localized extinction event as their pattern of uprooting vegetation is preventing sapling growth in South Florida’s last remaining tropical hardwood hammocks. I’d prefer to see them gone rather than to lose the native species of Florida’s natural heritage.

Now all this got me to thinking… While we might argue the European pigs shouldn’t be here, might there be animals that are not here and should be? During my undergraduate years at Palm Beach Atlantic University, I studied under a biology professor by the name of Peggy VanArman. Every year Dr. Peggy would take a few of us on a fossil hunting canoe trip along Florida’s Peace River. It’s your typical Central Florida waterway, lined with Spanish moss dusted cypress and littered with alligator. But this river hosts a bonanza of fossils – the remainder of animals both terrestrial and marine that roamed this part of the world in ages past. On a good day intrepid scavengers can scrounge up everything from camel vertebrae to the oversized teeth of Carcharodon megalodon – that monstrous pre-historic cousin of our present day great white shark. But what struck me the most back then was Peggy’s book on the fossils of Florida. The cover was an oil paint depiction of Pleistocene life in Florida. The landscape looked largely the same as today – sabal palms, palmettos, sawgrass and scrubby vegetation. But there was something unequivocally different about the Florida in this picture. Front and center in the landscape was a herd of giant pachyderms. Mammoths! And scattered about were other large mammals of the day, the relatives of horse, rhinos and camels that once roamed North America. It was an image that captured and has persisted in my imagination for years.

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting a cool, young scientist by the name of Josh Donlan. Dr. Donlan published a fascinating, but highly controversial paper in the science journal Nature. The topic was on “rewilding” North America with megafauna – large land mammals. Such mammals, the likes of which are found primarily in Africa and Asia today, became extinct here in North America around 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene. And the likely culprit? Us. Humans, upon entering North America for the first time, hunted them into oblivion. The basic premise of “rewilding” is that many of our existing plants and animals co-evolved with these large beasts and their absence creates an incomplete, somewhat less healthy, landscape ecology. The idea is to restore biological function lost to this continent millennia ago. Now, naturally, there is no way to bring back woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed cats and the other 60 some large mammals that went the way of the dodo. But what Donlan proposes is that we replace many of them with their nearest genetic (and theoretically ecological) equivalent. This would mean African elephants for mastodons, African lions and cheetahs for their American counterparts and so on. And the double-win for conservation would be providing a new home for these animals that are increasingly threatened with extinction in their modern ranges.

Although a thrilling prospect from my viewpoint, it is easy to see why this paper caused a bit of a stir. We’ve spent the past 500 years ridding the landscape of wolves, mountain lions, buffalo and grizzly bears to make way for the Wal-Marts and false sense of security of our sprawling suburban neighborhoods. The last thing the broader public wants to think about is how to deal with elephants and lions strolling up during a 4th of July backyard barbeque. But despite the improbability of gaining anything even resembling public support for this plan, I love it. It is the wilderness romantic in me. The concept somehow overrides any sense of precaution, common sense or otherwise “rational” thought I might loosely claim to sometimes have. It is beautiful, savage dream of a revived wilderness lost in time.

And this brings me back to the wide open land ranging between the Atlantic coast and Orlando. This is beautiful, wild Florida ranchland dotted with cypress domes, temperate forest and grasslands as far as the eye can see. Why not create a “Pleistocene Park” here? Why not test Donlan’s “rewilding” concept on a small, controlled scale? Conceptually, it would not be so different from the safari parks and game ranches that currently exist in both Florida and Texas. But this would be no microcosm of the Dark Continent created for the amusement of tourists or the trophy walls of middle class gunmen. This would be a replication of Florida – a Florida before Jimmy Buffett, before the Everglades were drained, before even the native Americans whose language persists in names like Okeechobee and Loxahatchee. This is the Florida before people.

African elephants and lions would be complimented by South American tapirs, guanacos, and capybaras (horse, camel and guinea pig relatives respectively, the ancestors of which all once roamed the Florida landscape). There might be herds of wild horse and, of course, the native alligator and Florida panther.
If a large enough landscape was bought up and fenced in so that these animals could range free rather than survive only in separated pens, it would be a fascinating ecological experiment. How would they interact with each other and with the native flora and fauna? Which species would thrive and which would become naturally “rare”? Would the landscape change under the influence of mighty pachyderms? Would social patterns become altered to adapt to the new (old) ecology?

But beyond scientific curiosity, such a park would be a valuable tool in better understanding this portion of the North American landscape. It could be an educational device for society, helping us better adapt to and co-exist with the natural world, rather than beating it into submission as has been our pattern over past millennia. Finally, it would be a genetic reservoir. A place from where, should anything unfortunately go wrong with us, nature in all of its majesty could spring forth again and repopulate. This is a wild dream in every sense of the word, but one I would love to see come true.

Images courtesy Carl Buell (Cornell University), Wild Florida and the Florida Museum

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