Pining away for Pleistocene megafauna

I have a teeny tiny obsession with giant ground sloths, which has been made ever so much worse by moving to California, which is sloth ground zero. The sloths haven’t been extinct for long – 10,000 years is pocket change in evolutionary terms – so many of the plant species that knew the sloths still exist. The Joshua tree, for example, is unable to travel without sloths to poop out intact seeds. There is also the theory that avocados  evolved for sloth poopage, since nothing else is big enough to pass the giant pits.

Joshua trees aren’t alone. NPR recently had a story on the thorns of honey locust trees, which live in Manhattan (among other places.) A paleoecologist is theorizing that the big thorns were evolved to protect against a big grazer – the mastodon. The story totally captures the pain of a tree that is all gussied up with no predator to pierce:

[Said in a mournful tone] There hasn’t been a mastodon in New York for at least 13,000 years, but the thorns are still there, waiting for the mastodons that will never come.

Fortunately for the honey locust, researchers proposed a solution back in 2005. Bring the Pleistocene megafauna back to America! The Pleistocene wasn’t just about sloths & mastodons – there were also lions and cheetahs and camels and dire wolves, and those have living modern analogues. So the idea is to let African lions and elephants and such loose on the Great Plains. Wouldn’t you like to go on a safari in Oklahoma?

Of course this idea is completely mad (especially since we can’t seem to deal with the wolves that are already here) but it’s the kind of madness I love. Maybe one day we can clone the sloths, too. If you want more info, the official rewilding page is here.

Also, now I really want this book on ecological ghosts by the author of the honey locust NPR piece.

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5 Responses to Pining away for Pleistocene megafauna

  1. jebyrnes says:

    Noooooo! Get off the re-wilding train! Off it! Now! tsk tsk! Have we learned nothing from invasive species biology – even congeners who seem superficially similar ARE NOT THE SAME AND THROW THINGS TO HELL!

    That said, dude, if there was a giant ground sloth somewhere in the world, I’d totally want to have it here. Just to give me a hug.

  2. Sam says:

    Yes, obviously seeding the Midwest with a bunch of cheetahs is the worst idea ever. But can I just express how much I love the name “dire wolf”? It sounds like a creature in D&D or World of Warcraft or something.

    Oh, wait — that’s because it is.

  3. mieke says:

    That sentence was very funny – I heard that story too. ❤ NPR

  4. Gila says:

    Wow, we have giant sloths to thank for avocados? Well, clearly, for that alone we should bring them little buggers back! New life all around!

  5. Dammit, Jarrett & Sam, do not destroy this beautiful vision with your REASON and your FACTS.

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