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Thinking big
Protecting ecosystems could begin with the restoration of the largest species
by Beth Staples

Exploring extinction

Video transcript

Jacquelyn Gill:
I’m a paleoecologist, which means I study the ecology of the past. It’s a lot like forensic science.

You basically go out and collect clues to what the ecosystems were like through time. We can’t observe our study systems, so we have to piece together what the plants and animals were, what the climate was like, using the little bits of material they leave behind.

Some of the work that I’ve done has looked at the consequences of the extinction of ice-age megafauna. These really big charismatic animals, like mammoths, mastodons, giant beaver and ground sloths. For decades, a lot of people had spent quite a bit of time looking at why those animals went extinct. No one really asked the question about what happened afterwards.

If you look around us, all the species that you see now, co-evolved with these really large animals that are now extinct. The work that I’ve done has shown that, once these animals went extinct it triggered a period of, what I would call, ecological upheaval. For 1,000 years, the ecosystem really was quite unlike anything we’ve seen before or after.

It really shows that there’s this period of adjustment, and there were a lot of ecological surprises. The plants that survive today are different in the absence of those animals. I think this has really important conservation relevance because our large animals are some of the most threatened we have on the landscape today.

Things like elephants, rhinos, we’re losing them in vast rates. The ecosystems that they leave behind will notice when those animals are gone.

Jeff Martin:
You can compare what I have in my hand, of phalanx to other known species, just by basing what this looks like. It’s most comparable to Bos Bison.

Jacquelyn Gill:
This summer, I took a graduate student, Jeff Martin, and an undergraduate Chason Frost, out to Wind Cave, as part of Jeff’s PhD project. Looking at how bison are responding to abrupt climate change. Jeff was raised on a bison ranch. He is very interested in how paleontology can be used to help inform the modern bison industry.

Jeff Martin:
When I was in sixth grade, for a Christmas gift, my parents gave me a calf. They purchased a calf, just for me. Her name was Gummy Bear. Because I was in sixth grade. Why not? She was my first. She’s still with me. She’s my best producer. She’s also the largest out of my females that I have.

She, alone, has produced 15 animals. I’m intimately back and forth between academic and a rancher, myself. I want my animals to succeed. I want everyone else to succeed. Without the cooperation of the entire industry, there won’t be an industry.

One of the major issues I’m trying to tackle is with climate change. It’s not all of North America getting hotter. Places are getting colder. Some places are getting hotter. Some places are getting more precipitation. Some places are getting less.

Jacquelyn Gill:
There are many mechanisms by which climate change can affect animals. You can have this direct effect of temperature and moisture on the animals, themselves. You feel, if you walk out on a hot day, you’re experiencing climate directly. There’s also the indirect effect through the plants, which are the food that these animals are eating.

What’s really exciting about a place like Wind Cave is it’s like a little collector basin that’s trapping little bits of the ecosystem over thousands of years. They just wash in. Some cases we have the help in the form of little rodents and things that are scavenging around and bringing part of the ecosystem into the cave for us.

Wind Cave, what we’re really interested in doing is putting together multiple components of that ecosystem. We have people working on reptiles. We have people working on the carnivores. People working on the bison, like Jeff.

Jeff Martin:
Bones tell us so many things. Bones, if they’re persevered, can tell us the lifestyle of an animal and how it was living its life. If it was a runner, if it was a digger. The beaver, it’s a big swimmer. It also lifts a lot of mud, so he has a pretty wide humerus.

What we’re finding in the cave, which is at least 10,000 years old, based on some of the animals that we’re finding in association with the bison, including peccaries, camels, and horses. They all lived here in North America, before Europeans arrived here. Based on those, it’s at least 10,000 years old.

We have over 25 species of vertebrates already. We haven’t done anything with pollen or the vegetation yet. That’s what we’re working on currently. We have to process all of the dirt and everything else that’s messy, so we can get just the pollen.

Jacquelyn Gill:
You can find little mice toe bones. They’re really cute.

I think if you try to even study our world, just as a snapshot in time, there’s a lot that you can learn. There’s so much you’re missing out on.

Understanding how change through time, and how that long term perspective can help inform just how we understand the main things around us and how they operate. Also how we can better inform conservationists, land managers, and people dealing with really practical issues.

The past can both inform just the basic science about how we understand the planet and its living things. Also how we manage the living things and conserve them for the future.