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Pleistocene rewilding

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Pleistocene rewilding is the advocacy of the reintroduction of extant Pleistocene megafauna, or the close ecological equivalents of extinct megafauna. It is an extension of the conservation practice of rewilding, which involves reintroducing species to areas where they became extinct in recent history (hundreds of years ago or less).[1]

Towards the end of the Pleistocene era (roughly 13,000 to 10,000 years ago), nearly all megafauna of Eurasia, Australia, and South/North America, dwindled towards extinction, in what has been referred to as the Quaternary extinction event. With the loss of large herbivores and predator species, niches important for ecosystem functioning were left unoccupied.[2] In the words of the biologist Tim Flannery, "ever since the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, the continent has had a seriously unbalanced fauna". This means, for example, that the managers of national parks in North America have to resort to culling to keep the population of ungulates under control.[3]

Paul S. Martin (originator of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis[4]) states that present ecological communities in North America do not function appropriately in the absence of megafauna, because much of the native flora and fauna evolved under the influence of large mammals.[5]

Ecological and evolutionary implications

Research shows that species interactions play a pivotal role in conservation efforts. Communities where species evolved in response to Pleistocene megafauna (but now lack large mammals) may be in danger of collapse.[6][7] Most living megafauna are threatened or endangered; extant megafauna have a significant impact on the communities they occupy, which supports the idea that communities evolved in response to large mammals. Pleistocene rewilding could "serve as additional refugia to help preserve that evolutionary potential" of megafauna.[7] Reintroducing megafauna to North America could preserve current megafauna, while filling ecological niches that have been vacant since the Pleistocene.[8]

Climate implications

Sergey Zimov, a Russian scientist and proponent of Pleistocene rewilding, argues that it could restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem and in doing so slow the melting of the Arctic permafrost and give the world more time to respond to climate change.[9] He holds that the mammoth steppe collapsed because of overhunting by humans rather than natural climate change, and has established Pleistocene Park in Siberia and Wild Field in European Russia to test grassland restoration through reintroducing mammoth steppe animals and proxies for them.[10][11]

Possible fauna for reintroduction (North America)

The Bolson tortoise, the first proposed candidate for Pleistocene rewilding

Pleistocene rewilding aims at the promotion of extant fauna and the reintroduction of extinct genera in the southwestern and central United States. Native fauna are the first genera proposed for reintroduction. The Bolson tortoise was widespread during the Pleistocene era, and continued to be common during the Holocene epoch until recent times. Its reintroduction from northern Mexico would be a necessary step to recreate the soil humidity present in the Pleistocene, which would support grassland and extant shrub-land and provide the habitat required for the herbivores set for reintroduction. Other large tortoise species might later be introduced to fill the role of various species of Hesperotestudo. However, to be successful, ecologists must first support fauna already present in the region.

The pronghorn, which is extant in most of the west after almost becoming extinct, is crucial to the revival of the ancient ecosystem. Pronghorns are native to the region, which once supported large numbers of the species and extinct relatives of the same family. It would occupy the great plains and other arid regions of the west and southwest.

The plains bison numbered in the millions during the Pleistocene and most of the Holocene, until European settlers drove them to near-extinction in the late 19th century. The bison has made a recovery in many regions of its former range, and is involved in several local rewilding projects across the Midwestern United States.

Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are already present in the surrounding mountainous areas and therefore should not pose a problem in rewilding more mountainous areas. Mountain goats are already being introduced to areas formerly occupied by Oreamnos haringtoni, a more southern relative that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. Reintroducing extant species of deer to the more forested areas of the region would be beneficial for the ecosystems they occupy, providing rich nutrients for the forested regions and helping to maintain them. These species include elk, white-tailed and mule deer.

Herbivorous species considered beneficial for the regional ecosystems include the collared peccary, a species of pig-like ungulate that was abundant in the Pleistocene. Although this species (along with the flat-headed and long-nosed peccaries) is extinct in many regions of North America, their relatives survive in Central and South America and the collared peccary can still be found in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The Chacoan peccary, which is morphologically very similar to the flat-headed peccary, might be able to replace it in areas of the Great Plains and the South.

Horses originated in North America and spread to Asia via the Ice Age land bridge, but became extinct in their evolutionary homeland alongside the mammoth and ground sloth. The Pleistocene grasslands of North America were the birthplace of the modern horse, and by extension the wild horse. Przewalski's horses are well adapted to arid and grassland regions and could be introduced as a substitute for their close North American relative, Scott's horse. The stilt-legged horses might be approximated by the morphologically similar onagers, kiangs, and asses. Animals that would serve as predators of these equine species would include lions and wolves.[12]

Alongside the wild horse, camels evolved in the drier regions of North America. Although camelids are extinct in North America, they have survived in South America until today: the guanaco and vicuña, and the domesticated llama and alpaca. North America links the South American camelids with those of the Old World (the dromedary, Bactrian camel and wild Bactrian camel). Pleistocene rewilding suggests that the closest relatives of the North American species of camelid be reintroduced. The best candidates would be the wild Bactrian as a proxy for Camelops, the guanaco as a proxy for Hemiauchenia, and possibly the Vicuña as a proxy for Palaeolama. These species would live in the arid regions and grasslands of North America. Free-ranging camels face predators typical of their regional distribution, which include wolves and lions.[13] The main predator of guanacos and vicuñas is the cougar.[14]

The mountain tapir

During the Pleistocene, a species of tapir existed in North America with many regional variants. They became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era, but their relatives survive in Asia and South America. The mountain tapir would be an excellent choice for rewilding humid areas, such as those near lakes and rivers. The mountain tapir is the only extant non-tropical species of tapir. Predators of mountain tapirs include cougars, bears, and, less commonly, jaguars.[15] Good introduction areas might include forested ecosystems of the west and east coasts, and the more scrub-like or wetland ecosystem of the south.

During the Pleistocene, large populations of Proboscideans lived in North America, such as the Columbian mammoth and the American mastodon. The mastodons all became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era, as did the mammoths of North America. However, an extant relative of the mammoth is the Asian elephant. It now resides only in tropical southeastern Asia, but the fossil record shows that it was much more widespread, living in temperate northern China as well as the Middle East (an area bearing an ecological similarity to the southern and central United States). The Asian elephant is possibly a good candidate for Pleistocene rewilding in North America. Asian elephants would do well in the environments previously occupied by the Columbian mammoth. African elephants have also been suggested for introduction into North America.

Pleistocene America boasted a wide variety of dangerous carnivores (most of which are extinct today), such as the short-faced bear, saber-toothed cats (e.g. Homotherium), the American lion, dire wolf, and the American cheetah. Some carnivores and omnivores survived the end of the Pleistocene era and were widespread in North America until Europeans arrived, such as grizzly bears, cougars, jaguars, grey and red wolves, bobcats, and coyotes.[16] The cheetah could serve as a substitute for Miracinonyx, keeping the population of pronghorns in check. Jaguars could be reintroduced back to areas of North America to control populations of prey animals. Some of the larger cats such as the African lion could act as a proxy for the Pleistocene American lion, they could be introduced to keep the numbers of American bison, equids, and camelids in check.


The main criticism of the Pleistocene rewilding is that it is unrealistic to assume that communities today are functionally similar to their state 10,000 years ago. Opponents argue that there has been more than enough time for communities to evolve in the absence of mega-fauna, and thus the reintroduction of large mammals could thwart ecosystem dynamics and possibly cause collapse. Under this argument, the prospective taxa for reintroduction are considered exotic and could potentially harm natives of North America through invasion, disease, or other factors.[1]

Opponents of the Pleistocene rewilding present an alternative conservation program, in which more recent North American natives will be reintroduced into parts of their native ranges where they became extinct during historical times.[1] Another way of rewilding Americas, Asia, etc. is by using de-extinction, bringing extinct species back to life through cloning.[17]

Pleistocene rewilding in Europe

This plan was considered by Josh Donlan and Jens-C. Svenning, and involves (as in rewilding North America) creating a Pleistocene habitat in portions of Europe. Svenning claims that "Pleistocene Rewilding can be taken for consideration outside of North America".[citation needed] Incidentally, an independent "Rewilding Europe" initiative was established in the Netherlands in 2011, with the western Iberian Peninsula, Velebit, the Danube delta and the eastern and southern Carpathians as particular targets.[18]

The proxies which may be used for this project(s) are:

Animals which have already been introduced

European Bison

Expanding populations

Species that became extinct in the historic past but still exist as domestic descendants

Species still extant outside Europe

Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel With Fire and Sword opens with a description of saigas as a way to highlight the story's exotic setting[22] [23] Saigas are now extinct in Europe and are a critically endangered species.

Northern Siberia

Wood bison reintroduction program in Sakha Republic.

The aim of Siberian Pleistocene rewilding is to recreate the ancient mammoth steppe by reintroducing megafauna. The first step was the successful reintroduction of musk oxen on the Taymyr Peninsula and Wrangel island. In 1988, researcher Sergey Zimov created Pleistocene Park – a nature reserve in northeastern Siberia for full-scale megafauna rewilding.[27] Reindeer, Siberian roe deer and moose were already present; Yakutian horses, muskox, Altai wapiti and wisent were reintroduced. Reintroduction is also planned for yak, Bactrian camels, snow sheep, Saiga antelope, and Siberian tigers.

The wood bison, the closest relative of the ancient bison which became extinct in Siberia 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, is an important species for the ecology of Siberia. In 2006, 30 bison calves were flown from Edmonton, Alberta to Yakutsk. Now they live in the government-run Ust'-Buotama reserve.

Megafauna of the Pleistocene mammoth steppe

Animals that have already been introduced

Considered for reintroduction


Animals that have already been introduced

Considered for reintroduction

Island landmasses

Megafauna that arose on insular landmasses were especially vulnerable to human influence because they evolved in isolation from other landmasses, and thus were not subjected to the same selection pressures that surviving fauna were subject to, and many forms of insular megafauna were wiped out after the arrival of humans. Therefore, scientists have suggested introducing closely related taxa to replace the extinct taxa. This is being done on several islands, with replacing closely related or ecologically functional giant tortoises to replace extinct giant tortoises.[35] For example, the Aldabra giant tortoise has been suggested for replacing the extinct Malagasy giant tortoises,[36][37] and Malagasy radiated tortoises have been introduced to Maritius to replace the tortoises that were present there.[38] However, the usage of tortoises in rewilding experiments have not been limited to replacing extinct tortoises. At the Makauwahi Cave Reserve in Hawaii, exotic tortoises are being used as a replacement for the extinct moa-nalo,[39] a large flightless duck hunted to extinction by the first Polynesians to reach Hawaii. The grazing habits of these tortoises control and reduce the spread of invasive plants, and promote the growth of native flora.[40]


Animals that have already been introduced

Expanding populations

Extant outside Australia

Considered for reintroduction

Introduced species as alternative proxy for extinct fauna

There have been discussions that introduced exotic faunas, most notably the Dromedary as proxy for diprotodon and other megaherbivores,[44] may fill empty niches of extinct faunas.[45][46]

British Isles

Animals that have already been introduced

Considered for reintroduction


Animals that have already been introduced

Considered for reintroduction

Maritime Southeast Asia

Considered for reintroduction

See also


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  2. ^ Janzen, Daniel H.; Paul S. Martin (1 January 1982). "Neotropical Anachronisms: The Fruits the Gomphotheres Ate". Science. 215 (4528): 19–27. Bibcode:1982Sci...215...19J. doi:10.1126/science.215.4528.19. PMID 17790450. S2CID 19296719.
  3. ^ Tim Flannery (2001), The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples, ISBN 1-876485-72-8, pp. 344--346
  4. ^ Martin, Paul (22 October 1966). "Africa and Pleistocene Overkill". Nature. 212 (5060): 339–342. Bibcode:1966Natur.212..339M. doi:10.1038/212339a0. S2CID 27013299.
  5. ^ Martin, P. S. (2005). Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520231412. OCLC 58055404. Retrieved 11 November 2014.
  6. ^ Galetti, M. (2004). "Parks of the Pleistocene: Recreating the cerrado and the Pantanal with megafauna". Natureza e Conservação. 2 (1): 93–100.
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  8. ^ Donatti, C.I.; M. Galetti; M.A. Pizo; P.R. Guimarães Jr. & P. Jordano (2007). "Living in the land of ghosts: Fruit traits and the importance of large mammals as seed dispersers in the Pantanal, Brazil". In Dennis, A.; R. Green; E.W. Schupp & D. Wescott (eds.). Frugivory and seed dispersal: theory and applications in a changing world. Wallingford, UK: Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International. pp. 104–123.
  9. ^ Zimov, Sergey A. (6 May 2005). "Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth's Ecosystem". Science. 308 (5723): 796–798. doi:10.1126/science.1113442. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 15879196.
  10. ^ "Siberian window on the Ice Age". 2 July 2007. Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  11. ^ "Sergey Zimov's Manifesto". Retrieved 20 February 2021.
  12. ^ Mech & Boitani 2003, p. 305
  13. ^ Chambers, Delaney (29 January 2017). "150-year-old Diorama Surprises Scientists With Human Remains". National Geographic. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  14. ^ Busch, Robert H. The Cougar Almanac. New York, 2000, pg 94. ISBN 1592282954.
  15. ^ Padilla, Miguel; et al. (2010). "Tapirus pinchaque (Perissodactyla: Tapiridae)" (PDF). Mammalian Species. 42 (1): 166–182. doi:10.1644/863.1. S2CID 33277260.
  16. ^ Conservation Magazine, July 2008 Retrieved 2011-05-18.
  17. ^ a b "De-Extinction". 15 March 2015. Archived from the original on 13 May 2013.
  18. ^ "Rewilding areas". Rewilding Europe. Retrieved 21 November 2019.
  19. ^ Why is Europe rewilding with water buffalo?
  20. ^ "English website FREE Nature - Wild waterbuffalo in holocene Europe".
  21. ^ Gladilina, E.V.; Kovtun, Oleg; Kondakov, Andrey; Syomik, A.M.; Pronin, K.K.; Gol'din, Pavel (1 January 2013). "Grey seal Halichoerus grypus in the Black Sea: The first case of long-term survival of an exotic pinniped". Marine Biodiversity Records. 6. doi:10.1017/S1755267213000018 – via ResearchGate.
  22. ^ Sienkiewicz, Henryk. With Fire and Sword (Ogniem i Mieczem). p. Wolne Lektury. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  23. ^ "O suhaku, który z suchych stepów przybył". MENAŻERIA ETYMOLOGICZNA. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  24. ^ "Vilde store dyr i Danmark – et spørgsmål om at ville".
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  27. ^ "Pleistocene Park: Restoration of the Mammoth Steppe Ecosystem".
  28. ^ Gunn, A. & Forchhammer, M. (2008). "Ovibos moschatus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2008: e.T29684A9526203. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T29684A9526203.en. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of least concern.
  29. ^ Wood bison to be listed in Yakutia's Red Data Book
  30. ^ Vratislav Mazák: Der Tiger. Westarp Wissenschaften; Auflage: 5 (April 2004), unveränd. Aufl. von 1983 ISBN 3-89432-759-6 (S. 196)
  31. ^ South Korean fox crossed into North Korea, Seoul says
  32. ^ Can Iran get a second chance at extraordinary long-extinct Caspian tiger?
  33. ^ Zalophus japonicus. The Extinction Website
  34. ^ a b Yeong‐Seok Jo, John T. Baccus, 2016, Case studies of the history and politics of wild canid restoration in Korea
  35. ^ Hansen, Dennis M.; Donlan, C. Josh; Griffiths, Christine J.; Campbell, Karl J. (1 April 2010). "Ecological history and latent conservation potential: large and giant tortoises as a model for taxon substitutions". Ecography. 33 (2): 272–284. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06305.x.
  36. ^ "Rewilding Giant Tortoises in Madagascar". 30 June 2013.
  37. ^ "Imported Tortoises Could Replace Madagascar's Extinct Ones".
  38. ^ "Rewilding".
  39. ^ "Makauwahi Cave Reserve".
  40. ^ TEDx Talks (11 April 2013). "Rewilding, Ecological Surrogacy, and Now... De-extinction?: David Burney at TEDxDeExtinction". Archived from the original on 21 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  41. ^ Mirounga leonina — Southern Elephant Seal
  43. ^ Emus once roamed Tasmania, so what happened to them?
  44. ^ Chris Johnson, 2019, Rewilding Australia, Australasian Science
  45. ^ Arian Wallach, 2014, Red Fox, Dingo for Biodiversity Project
  46. ^ Arian Wallach, Daniel Ramp, Erick Lundgren, William Ripple, 2017, From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world, Misha Ketchell, The Conversation
  47. ^ Wildwood Trust's bid to bring bison back to the wild on outskirts of Herne Bay
  48. ^ Monbiot, George (2013). Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. Allen Lane. ISBN 978-1-846-14748-7.
  49. ^ Not Japanese after all: Tsushima otter deemed to be Eurasian river otter
  50. ^ ジュゴン日本個体群の絶滅を座視してはならない
  51. ^ "有害獣駆除 オオカミにお願い 豊後大野市が輸入構想". Archived from the original on 31 October 2010. Retrieved 28 November 2019.
  52. ^ "毎日新聞 毎日jp 2011年1月15日【オオカミ:害獣除去の切り札に 大分・豊後大野市が構想】". Archived from the original on 16 January 2011. Retrieved 28 November 2019.
  53. ^ There is no conservation justification for bringing the tapir back to Borneo
  54. ^ Visayan Warty PigSus cebifrons

External links