Bringing Back Europe’s Prehistoric Beasts

This is a combination of two items in the news this week, and both are concerned with reconstructing the past – the first being an attempt to partially revive a past which can be shown to have existed, the second being an attempt to portray a past that never was, but nevertheless presented as a scientifically researched venture.

The first article over at Scientific American examines a ‘re-wilding’ project slated for Europe, whose aim is to bring back to life some of the mega-fauna that perished here about 50,000 years ago, and reflects a similar proposed venture in the US. As we see…

A few years ago, a group of scientists conceived a “re-wilding” plan aimed at restoring North America’s lost Pleistocene ecosystems. The purpose: to restore lost ecological processes and evolutionary potential as well as provide a safe haven for megafauna barely surviving in conflict-ridden, unstable or densely populated regions elsewhere.

Since that time, much of the discussion about re-wilding has remained focused on North America. Meanwhile, other candidates for re-wilding have been largely overlooked, although there is a major effort underway in Siberia to preserve and extend Pleistocene-like grasslands at northern latitudes as well as initiatives in Europe, the continent that may hold the greatest promise for bringing the Pleistocene back to life.

Bearing in mind that the planet seems to be in the process of gradual and/or sudden climate change, predicting the suitability of areas able to retain long-term viability for any extant animals is going to be difficult, and accommodating guests from yesteryear, even more so. Europe is considered a better candidate than America, mainly because the die-off in America was so extreme, with much of what died leaving no direct genetic descendants.

And although we can’t exactly re-create the cave bear or woolly rhino, we do have a few contenders that might yet be released into what’s left of the European wilderness. Here’s some further detail…

…re-wilding initiatives in Europe must also include reinvigoration of megafauna populations already there that have suffered severe range constriction. Among them: the wolf, brown bear, lynx and moose. Scientists should also consider reintroducing 11 additional megafauna species: the Asiatic lion, leopard, spotted hyena, dhole, horse, cattle, Asiatic wild ass, Asiatic elephant, hippopotamus, water buffalo and hairy rhinoceros.

There could be some difficulty in the way in which individual, or groups of species, enter what will in effect become an expanded food chain – for example, if as suggested, lions are re-introduced, suitable prey animals would have to be in place, who in turn would need suitable habitats to ensure their own survival.

Although there are plans to replace some extinct species with their descendants, simply installing the Asiatic elephant to take the place of the missing straight-tusked elephant, or replacing extinct giant deer with fallow substitutes, doesn’t initially sound that exciting, – it may be possible in the future to genetically tweak our extant species to something more in keeping with the Pleistocene. The return of the mighty cave bear would be spectacular, as would the reappearance of sabre-toothed cats – as far as I know there are no plans to bring back Neanderthals or other archaic humans, but if someone finds a way to do that, we might yet meet that particular set of ghosts in real life.

And while it’s possible that technological advances might somehow make extinction a thing of the past, with any creature able to be reconstituted and given another day in the sun, any exotic creatures from the past that do appear will immediately become a prime target for bounty hunters, assuming of course these animals are left truly in the wild. It’s likely that bespoke reservations would need to be constructed, but even then, some critics contend that we would only be creating zoo animals for our own entertainment – plus of course, the satisfaction of knowing that we have the ability to re-create extinct life. And who’s to say how we might in the future try to terraform other ‘themed’ planets, and what experiments we might attempt in the process…

The second article touches on the subject of faunal revivalism has also been raised by the opening of the Creation Museum, in Kentucky, although as many readers will be aware, this project is altogether different from those discussed above.

Funded to the tune of $27 million, and under the aegis of Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum paints a picture of the past which includes supposedly herbivorous dinosaurs quietly going about their business, while two nearby human children sit content and undaunted a few yards away. One aim of this museum is to convince us that all animals that ever lived on Earth did so together within the last 6,000 years, at first in a pre-Fall harmony, mediated by the Creator.

I’m not sure if the Creationists explain how so many species have become extinct since being released into the post-diluvian world from Noah’s Ark – an estimated 99% of everything that has ever lived is estimated to be currently extinct. In any event, an impressive application of electronic wizardry has resulted in models of dinosaurs with moving mouths and sound-emitting effects, for those added touches of realism which the viewing public has come to expect.

Resurrecting extinct species for real is, or will be, a costly business, and few academic institutions would be able to secure funding for such experiments, without substantial aid from the private sector. But is it any more realistic for science to attempt recreating a lost Ice Age world, replete with roaming megafauna on our planet in its current state, than Creationists re-creating a world which almost certainly never existed at all. Many would claim it’s far more important that we address the pressing issues which are crowding in around us, rather than trying to reincarnate a past which we can never truly access or fully understand, and should be left where it belongs – in the past.   (TJ)

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