[permaculture] Lions and elephants on the Great Plains?

Ben Martin Horst benjamin_horst at myrealbox.com
Fri Aug 19 01:02:04 EDT 2005

In regard to "ecological holes:"

The late great evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould wrote extensively 
on "punctuated equilibrium" in biological evolution. In a nutshell, the 
concept is that the evolutionary process is generally rather slow. 
Species tend to reach a sort of equilibrium with each other; once in 
such a balanced state, species change only slowly, if at all. It is only 
when something unusual happens that the evolutionary process really revs 
up, before settling back down to equilibrium. The process is a bit like 
the classical succesion model in a forest after a fire or logging: 
sudden explosive growth occurs to start healing the land, and eventually 
new trees grow and the system settles back into equilibrium again. 
"Ecological holes" are to evolutionary history what a temporary clearing 
is to an old-growth forest.

Example 1: Undersea volcanoes create a remote chain of islands where 
open sea existed before. Over the course of a few centuries, the islands 
are colonized by windblown or floating seeds and by only a few vagrant 
pigeons and finches, and a few lizards and tortoises that managed to 
survive the ocean crossing on a lump of driftwood. Once ashore, the 
plants and animals find a variety of unused niches. They diversify 
rapidly to fill those niches, and in a matter of a very short time 
(geologically speaking) their descendents look and act very different 
from their ancestors and each other. That's more-or-less what happened 
on Pacific islands like the Hawaiian chain and the Galapagos. The few 
species that colonized the islands diversified into a wide variety of 
species unlike anything on the mainland. Darwin's finches all developed 
different bills to feed on new, unused seeds, and iguanas started 
swimming around in the ocean and eating seaweed.

Example 2: 65 million years ago, give or take, an asteroid or comet hit 
what is now the Yucatan. Major ash plumes fanned out across the globe, 
forest fires ignited on a massive, perhaps global, scale, and giant 
tsunamis raced across the oceans and penetrated mile upon mile inland. 
There's argument about whether the impact took out the dinosaurs all by 
itself or not, but it seems pretty clear that it certainly did major 
damage to ecosystems across the globe. In any case, most dinosaurs, all 
pterodactyls and plesiosaurs, and a host of other reptiles and 
amphibians, to say nothing of plants, all disappear from the fossil 
record about this time. Ecologies that had remained fairly stable for 
millions of years were virtually destroyed. Over the next few million 
years, however, there was an explosive growth in new critters emerging. 
The few dinosaur survivors filled many of the available aerial niches 
that the pterosaurs had left (we call them birds today). Mammals, which 
for millions of years had been little shrew-like beasties, saw an 
explosion of speciation and diversification. Other plant and animal 
orders experimented with similar wild and crazy diversification. The 
same pattern holds true for all of the mass extinctions throughout 
Earth's history: relatively stable ecosystems are devastated by 
something (sudden buildup of toxic gases in the atmosphere, catastrophic 
volcanism, and meteors are among the various causes), countless species 
go extinct, and the remaining species start picking up the pieces with 
wild and crazy abandon, developing and diverging into things 
unimaginable before.

Today we're in the midst of a human-induced mass extinction, and we 
probably haven't seen the worst of it yet. Whole ecosystems and 
bioregions are tattered, shattered, or outright destroyed. In the long 
run, we probably don't need to worry about the ecological survival of 
the Earth: it has proved remarkably resilient and creative in the past, 
and it will again. Gaia will play with new assemblages of species and 
develop plenty of new ones to fill all the gaping holes we've left. The 
problem for us is that even though the coming burst of ecological 
creativity and speciation will be speedy in geological terms, it will be 
unimaginably long in human terms: the hundreds of thousands of years at 
the least, but more likely four or five million. A little late for Homo 

As I understand it, that's where permaculture comes in. We use careful 
observation of ecosystems and our access to many species, both native 
and non, to begin filling enough of those holes to allow us to survive 
while Gaia does her work at filling all the rest. If we're successful, 
the coming millenia might just see not only countless plant and animal 
species unforeseen to us today, but also a lot of new human species 
filling a wide range of ecological niches.

PS. "Buffalo Commons" is a phrase that has been around since the 
mid-70's, as I recall. It was originally a proposal that the US stop 
subsidizing that intensive cattle-ranching across the Great Plains and 
turn the majority of it into a national park. The basic rationale is 
that maintaining "civilization" on the Great Plains is a net loss for 
the US, at least economically, so it might as well be used for something 
else, like restoring native ecosystems. A variation on the idea proposed 
by a few Indigenous activists is to cede these Great Plains territories 
to an autonomous Indigenous People's state, in exchange for their 
relinquishment of Native land claims elsewhere (Paiutes from Nevada 
could give up their claims there and receive inalienable sovereign 
rights to lands in South Dakota, for example). A google search on the 
phrase will probably come up with lots of hits. Note that when I use the 
phrase it's not in support of either of these or any other specific 
proposal, just an affirmation that it would be a darn good idea to start 
reintroducing some bison and other decimated native species back to big 
swaths of their former range.

>That's great! Buffaalo Commons could become a new code word for the 
>revitalization of Rural America and, of course, of suburban, wild and 
>urban areas indirectly impacted by such an effort.
>The concept of various species naturally causing holes in ecosystems is 
>interesting. On a scale more manageable and less invasive than with 
>herds of sabre-toothed tigers and mastodons, tolerance for and possibly 
>encouraging this to happen within ecosystems, holes fillable by natural 
>selection and succession, or by Man, might be a good thing as increased 
>diversity and randomness might eventually result, as if they were giant 
>edge zones, though not necessarily readily apparent as such.
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