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Land of the Lost

Woolly and mastodons flourished in North 13,000 years ago before in a geological heartbeat. Now one ecologist has a plan to bring them

By Keith Kloor

Twilight of the Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America

By S. Martin

University of California 269 pages, $29.95

There aren’t many conservationists who the Shasta ground sloth or any of the of other giant mammals mysteriously disappeared near the end of the recent ice age. Can you blame It’s hard enough on to what’s left of America’s heritage today. So conservationists focus on these extinct descendants, like the bison, the bear, and the elk.

However and noble these efforts they are “historically shortsighted and far too contends paleoecologist Paul in Twilight of the Mammoths, a provocative some will find and others visionary. Martin for returning the ancient beasts—sloths, tigers, mastodons, and other megafauna—to their old stomping in North America. Okay, he really wants is to restore evolutionary lineage by rewilding of the American desert and prairie their latter-day relatives, as the elephant and the cheetah, whose prospects in Africa are otherwise dim because of poaching and habitat

The idea may sound wacky, but as a professor of geosciences at the University of points out, the fossil supports its logic: “Before of our native big mammals, the New World had more in common with an game park than of us realize.” For instance, camels roamed here, alongside the mammoths and mastodons. It is these beasts, particularly the ground that Martin considers the animals of prehistoric North and America. Sloths ranged Alaska to Chilean Patagonia, the largest of them tipping the at more than 13,000 In the Pleistocene Era (1.8 million ago to 10,000 years ago), mammals were the norm; was, for example, the glyptodon, a of giant armadillo as big as a Volkswagen.

we glimpse these extinct in museum dioramas, perhaps that they had evolved in the over millions of years. But sudden wipeout was not unique to the more than 100 large species have vanished the world during the past years, a span geologists to as “near-time.”

Scientists attribute the to climate change and overhunting by whose population spread this time frame. has spent his 50-year career the fossil remains of the ground and other lost giants, together the dates of their His conclusion: The sudden extinctions of mammals tracks with the of hunters into new lands. In North America, for example, the humans are believed to have about 13,000 years Soon after, the ground and woolly mammoths disappeared. scientists besides Martin embrace the “overkill” theory, but it controversial because the evidence—actual sites—is scant.

Martin’s call for “reversing extinctions when we have the is also winning prominent in the field of conservation biology. The Nature recently carried an signed by him and 12 other scientists one from the Wildlife Conservation and another from the U.S. Survey), titled “Rewilding America.”

Its authors propose America’s ecological clock to the Pleistocene Era—not 1492, Columbus arrived, which is the benchmark used by most Otherwise, the article warns, will continue to decline: idea is to actively promote the of large wild vertebrates North America in preference to the and weeds’ (rats and dandelions) will otherwise come to the landscape.”

Twilight of the Mammoths is part detective story, part in some chapters we see Martin through petrified ground dung the size of softballs in a Canyon cave. Radiocarbon of the dung enables him to determine the diet and life history, up to the end of its existence. Elsewhere he explains large new national parks or game ranches in the United can serve as preserves for the llama, rhinoceros, and other taxonomic of the extinct mammals. Public present another suitable, if controversial, location. Martin “existing ecosystems would be and more balanced if they their ‘original’ complement of species.” Resurrecting this evolutionary heritage, he also would reflect true that predated human

Martin makes a cogent, case that has the potential to conservation biology practices. In he contends that “ignorance of the extinctions warps our view of ‘state of nature’ we should be to conserve or restore.” In recent for example, a debate over horses has raged in wildlife circles. Many conservationists that the horses are an alien and that their increasing are harming native ecosystems. But counters that this history. “Because horses here, flourished for tens of of years, and vanished around years ago, their with the Spanish in the 1500s was a not an alien invasion,” he writes.

In the foreword to Martin’s book, University biologist Harry W. feels impelled to caution “Realize that we are not conjuring an fantasy here, that of the Mammoths is not about some version of Jurassic Park, vaguely based on reality.” I that sentiment. Twilight of the is an engaging tale of scientific that uncovers a lost of the planet’s wild, evolutionary and offers some very ideas on how to reclaim it.

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Condor: To the Brink and Back—The and Times of One Giant Bird

By Nielsen

HarperCollins Publishers, 272 $25.95

Pete Bloom several months in a shallow to help save a bird. in a four-foot-deep pit, he waited for the last wild California to step into range of a net. With the push of a Bloom placed this species’ fate into hands. John Nielsen, the National Public Radio correspondent, fills his new book, with vivid descriptions of the people who, like successfully brought this vulture back from extinction. The California condor went the way of the passenger pigeon of its allure to trophy hunters and alike—both groups wanted its Additionally, collectors paid a price for the bird’s giant, eggs. In engaging detail, describes how the condor also a heated battle within the community between those who a hands-off management approach as David Brower) and those who captive breeding. This species thrived on the carcasses of the animals of prehistoric North but dwindled as people moved its habitat and thinned its food “The condor is a relic of the Epoch, not quite suited to the day and age,” writes Nielsen. does this mean we to let the condor fade away? no.”

—Todd Neale

By Alan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 324 $25

Invasive species have out native plants and animals all the planet, expanded at an alarming and caused billions of dollars in including an estimated $138 a year in the United States “Nature is entering a new era,” Alan Burdick, a senior at Discover magazine, “. wherein the threat to biological diversity is no just bulldozers or pesticides in a sense, nature itself.” In the thoroughly reported Out of Eden, follows biologists from to Hawaii to San Francisco Bay, brown tree snakes, pigs, green crabs, and nonnative species that decimated local ecosystems. of condemning all ecological invaders as Burdick seeks to demonstrate how adaptable nature really is. “It is all too to assume that an organism’s role’ is inflexibly inscribed in its he writes. “The human may be more niche-bound than any species.” People have it that much easier for to expand their ranges, rides on boats, planes, and the mail. This swarming seems beyond repair, and while not condoning it, suggests it is forcing us to reconsider our conventional of how ecosystems function.

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