Favorite

The Lost World 

Paul Martin's look back at animal extinctions leads to some controversial ideas for the future

Last August, a paper in the journal Nature proposed introducing elephants, lions and other big exotic animals into North America. All hell broke loose. The media got wind of it, and pretty soon everyone was upset at the thought of elephants stomping around in the garden, or lions eating Fido. The problem was, no one--at least no one I spoke with--had actually read the original paper.

I dug up a copy, and it turned out to be a thoughtful, provocative, well-reasoned argument that blows the current approach to conservation biology out of the water. It suggested that the loss of Pleistocene megafauna (a fancy term for big mammals like mammoths, camels, ground sloths and saber-toothed cats, all of which mysteriously disappeared somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago) created large gaps in the ecosystems of North and South America. To remedy this, the paper proposed refilling those gaps with modern-day relatives of the extinct animals, such as elephants, camels and lions. This would restore some balance to the system and give those same animals, many currently in danger of extinction, a chance at survival.

One of the paper's co-authors, Dr. Paul S. Martin, is best known as the chief proponent of the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis. Martin, emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona's Desert Laboratory, believes that the disappearance of most of North America's big mammals at the end of the last Ice Age (during the Pleistocene time period) not only coincided with the arrival of humans in North America, but was actually caused by overhunting.

Martin's new book, Twilight of the Mammoths, describes his 40-year journey of discovery back into the depths of "near time," the last 50,000 years of the history of life on Earth.

His adventure began in 1948 in Mexico, collecting birds for the ornithologist George M. Sutton and vertebrates for the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology. A bout with polio in 1950 led to a slight handicap and a change in direction. He began to study pollen, the weirdly shaped microscopic plant zygotes that not only give people allergies, but are also a basic component in plant reproduction. It had been discovered that fossil pollen could be used to reconstruct the ebb and flow of ancient plant communities across the prehistoric landscape over time. Furthermore, this information could be used to learn interesting things about what was going on with climate and plant communities during the time of the megafaunal extinctions, which Martin had become intrigued by.

In 1957, he landed a research job at the University of Arizona's Desert Research Lab on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson. Founded in 1903 by the Carnegie Institution, the lab had been the site of much of the early important work on the Sonoran Desert and the fledgling science of ecology.

Martin remembers his first day of work on the Hill (as it's still known), when a colleague handed him a fibrous brown object the size of a baseball and asked if he'd seen anything like it before. Martin was taken aback, as it turned out to be a fossilized turd, thousands of years old, from an extinct ground sloth. It was so well preserved, it looked almost fresh. Martin was hooked at that point, because one could perform both pollen and radiocarbon studies on the ancient dung. This would help to get a handle on the exact timing of the extinctions of these mammals.

The book describes Martin's efforts to explain the curious coincidence of the mass extinction that occurred subsequent to the arrival of people in North America. It's a terrific description of science at work, and functions as a primer on the nature of research--the collecting of data, the examination of competing hypotheses, the responses to criticisms. The problem of Pleistocene extinctions is a giant jigsaw puzzle in four dimensions, with many of the pieces hidden or missing. In spite of this, Martin has written a compelling story and backed it up with solid data. He shows how the core evidence for a human-caused mass extinction at the end of the Pleistocene is that the disappearances of large animals around the world did not coincide with climate changes or any other cause other than the spread of our own species. Extinctions consistently fall hard on the heels of the arrival of humans on the scene, in what he and others call a "deadly syncopation."

Paul Martin's research laid the foundation for the paper in Nature. It may represent the only hope that the world's large animals have left. Martin is a national treasure, one of the last great minds from a time when biology was about understanding the world and our place in it, rather than the get-rich quick scheme of biotechnology that it's become. This book is a testimony to his brilliance.

More by Jon Shumaker

  • Miracle Metal

    This volume on copper may be the most important book you'll read all year
    • Nov 15, 2012
  • Darkness in the Desert

    Deanne Stillman's look at a crime in the Mojave depicts aching heartbreak, haunting beauty
    • Jul 19, 2012
  • Our Endless Folly

    The revised 'Arizona: A History' tells the definitive story of our state
    • Jul 5, 2012
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

    An excerpt from Amy Silverman’s new book exploring the challenges and joys of raising a child with Down Syndrome
    • May 12, 2016
  • Bathed in Light

    A 75th-birthday exhibition pays tribute to Harold Jones’ long career in photography
    • Oct 15, 2015

The Range

After Orlando: An International Theatre Action

Clipper Combat Barber Competition

More »

Latest in Book Feature

  • Mystery Mastery

    Tucsonan Shannon Baker's new novel is getting her compared to Craig Johnson, C.J. Box and Linda Castillo
    • Sep 8, 2016
  • The Daughters

    An excerpt from a novel by Adrienne Celt
    • Aug 4, 2016
  • More »

Most Commented On

  • Douglas Revisited

    Never-before-seen Bernal photos are a timely love letter to Mexican-Americans of the borderlands
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • Nobody Rich or Famous

    Storied songwriter interviews his prison mentor, internationally lauded Tucson writer and educator Richard Shelton
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • More »

Facebook Activity

© 2016 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation