- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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
- "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.