Anthropocene Faunation (Part One): Beauty and Terror

January 22, 2016

Faunation (Science:ecology): The total animal life of a zone or area, the animal equivalent of vegetation. — Biology Online

Long ago, Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, and stressed that it occurred gradually. Since that time, a number of approaches have de-emphasized graduality and focused on rapid speciation. Punctuated equilibrium, developed by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, is a theory which states that relatively brief periods of rapid evolutionary change occur periodically, interrupting longer periods of relative stasis. Evolutionary developmental biology studies how relatively small evolutionary changes in developmental genes can produce wholesale changes in a species (allowing, for instance, an appendage to be suddenly duplicated—a process seen in the serially repeated legs of animals like crayfish and spiders). Evolutionary changes involving developmental genes are thought to underlie many of the animal body plans which emerged with the Cambrian explosion ~540 million years ago and constitute most of the fundamental structural variation to be found within kingdom Animalia.

Periods of evolutionary innovation follow catastrophic extinctions. The diversification of mammals occurred in the ecological niches emptied by ill-starred dinosaurs. The advent of photosynthesis and the oxygenation of the earth’s atmosphere ~2.4 billion years ago was catastrophic for a massive proportion of the single-celled species that occupied the planet at the time. Change that is “catastrophic” from one perspective (e.g. the dinosaurs’, anaerobic life’s) is simply change, from a broader perspective, of a great enough magnitude to allow a new regime to be established.

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Punctuated equilibrium, as told by butterflies.

There is no particular shortage of extinction at the moment. A number of scientific papers have assessed current estimates of species death and concluded that the rate equals or exceeds that of the five previous events we call “mass extinctions” (events in which 75% or more of species die off). (1) But the planetary systems changes currently underway cannot be characterized solely in terms of diminished biodiversity.

In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen proposed that the geological epoch of the Holocene, in vogue since the last time glaciers retreated back to the poles, was over, and that in fact the human species had overtaken in significance all the other forces that shape the earth, inaugurating the Anthropocene (anthro=man). The geological committee which officially defines the geological stages took the matter under consideration. Subsequent debate (an article in Smithsonian magazine rather absurdly tells us that “Efforts to label the human age have ignited a debate between environmentalists and geologists”) was perhaps confused by scientists’ inability to come to terms with the fact that they had no existing conceptual tools to study the Anthropocene because nothing like it has ever happened. To simply describe it as an extinction (perhaps followed in some time by a period of evolutionary innovation), to describe it solely in terms of geological strata and shifts in climate and ecosystems, is to miss a great deal of the point. It is analogous to characterizing the evolution of dinosaurs solely in terms of changing distributions of biomass.

In order to develop some conceptual tools for studying the bewildering present moment, an interdisciplinary journal called The Anthropocene Review was founded in 2014, the pages of which evince a scope and profundity of hallucinatory vision which would shame Hieronymous Bosch or Arthur Rimbaud. Debates about dating the Anthropocene discuss humanity’s “techno-fossil record” and claim the best stratiagraphic evidence for the new epoch might be the global signal of radioactive fallout from detonation of the first atomic bomb. Serious discussion occurs of whether the rapidly-emerging “technosphere” is a system best understood as being embedded in, and fundamentally responsive to the dynamics of, social-biological systems, or if it is best conceptualized as an autonomous entity with its own logic. A paper called “The Anthropocene Biosphere” tells us life has experienced three truly fundamental stages: first, the long microbial stage; second, a stage where most everything intuitively associated with “life” (like fish and trees) happened; and third, whatever is happening now. “Whatever is happening now” is best characterized, they claim, by four things:

“1) global homogenisation of flora and fauna; (2) a single species (Homo sapiens) commandeering 25–40% of net primary production and also mining fossil net primary production (fossil fuels) to break through the photosynthetic energy barrier; (3) human-directed evolution of other species; and (4) increasing interaction of the biosphere with the technosphere (the global emergent system that includes humans, technological artefacts, and associated social and technological networks).” (2)

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Anthropocene Lite.

 

Number three, the human-directed evolution of other species certainly refers to phenomena like domestication and genetic engineering, which, for all their inadvertent consequences are changes (often brought about at least somewhat intentionally) in species being directly exploited and interacted with by humans. Presumably, however, it also refers to the ways in which human modifications of ecosystems will, utterly inadvertently, drive future evolution of wild populations—and therefore begin to add complex dynamics to the very meaning of the term “wild.”

At the moment the most conspicuous evolutionary effect humans are having on wild animal populations are those associated with reduced genetic diversity. While large-bodied vertebrates have increased in abundance an order of magnitude in recent history, primarily in the form of humans and our domesticated species, wild vertebrate populations have globally declined by 30%. Roughly, this is 30% less genetic material to provide the raw material for evolutionary change.

In addition to threatening them with extinction, however, human activity is influencing wild populations in complex ways. Some of these effects are just as horribly dark as one would imagine. “The Wounds of Elephants and the Path to Liberation” documents the extreme deterioration of social structure in African elephants that has resulted from human hunting. The behavioral dynamics of young male elephants who have evaded bullets but been deprived essential aspects of their development are very reminiscent of those found in highly traumatized and perpetually fearful human populations, such as in prisons and ghettos. Aggression has significantly increased in overall magnitude and also lost its complex social context. New forms of aggression are being innovated. One national park in South Africa is experiencing an epidemic of young adult elephants raping rhinoceroses.

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0.00050253739% of the world’s threatened vertebrates.

It is tempting to think of the ecological crisis purely in terms of existence vs. nonexistence, extinction vs. persistence, but the ineluctable truth is that should elephants survive for an evolutionarily significant period of time, but continue to experience a new socio-ecology in which older females are not present to help raise young males, it will change what elephants are. The species with the complex cognitive abilities and rich emotional life necessary to pay visits to the bones of long-departed ancestors could, in some future Africa, be known for other rites, rites which depict the elephant’s departure from a web of relations in which it was previously embedded.

Other examples of the ways civilization has not simply driven populations to extinction but also changed life for them in complex ways are less heart-wrenching, and provide considerably less speculative foundations for discussing completely inadvertent human-influenced evolution. The coyote-wolf hybrids known as coywolves or Eastern coyotes are arguably the preeminent example. The very existence of coyote-wolf hybrids is thought to be a thoroughly unanticipated result of efforts to exterminate both species from large portions of North America. The war against wolves was effective while the war against coyotes turned out to be impossible; thus coyotes expanded their range into areas wolves had previously excluded them from and increased their numbers where wolves had suppressed them. Wolves found themselves members of a scattered and dying tribe while coyotes proliferated—mating occurred.

The hybrid animals have established themselves throughout eastern North America, developing remarkable evolutionary innovations in the less than 90 years of their existence. Most of these innovations are behavioral, and have allowed eastern coyotes to thrive, almost invisibly to the human occupants, in dense settlements. Radio telemetry studies which track the movements of these animals should look familiar to many people who have lived in a city without a house: they move long distances on railroad tracks and sleep, among other little pockets of anonymity, in the untouched center of the clover leaf structures created by freeway interchanges. (3) These are extremely non-trivial behavioral developments, which occurred in an evolutionarily brief window of time, the cognitive underpinnings of which are not known. These new behaviors conceivably resulted from some biological change which could have significant implications for future evolutionary events within the species.

Here is a familiar (and very true) narrative: civilization is advancing, wilderness retreating. As the wild dies, so too its inhabitants, until the earth becomes an entirely human-dominated place which, however hellish for us, simply does not allow for the existence of most other species. Here is the very strange dimension this narrative is taking on: as civilization advances, most species perish, but a small number with fortuitous pre-adaptations simply treat civilization as a new habitat, and their subsequent evolutionary pathways are forever influenced by this fact. Certainly, urban environments have long had their resident racoons and ravens, but these have been examples of resilience in the face of human activity, not evolution driven by it.

16.Cherry-Beach-coywolves-w-city-skyline

Earth First! and crust punk aesthetics involving wolves conquering the city were prescient.

Before the Cambrian, most animals were soft-bodied and lacked many anatomical and behavioral attributes familiar today. It was not just an explosion of new species but of entirely new forms and modes of existence: the ocean became a place of predation. As new species emerged, new predator-prey dynamics emerged. Armored bodies, bigger teeth, new sensory abilities, and adaptations for speed self-catalyzed more armor, teeth, sensory organs, and speediness—the so-called evolutionary arms race.

It is difficult not to conclude a similar process must be taking place now. Civilization is destroying habitat, but for some proportion of species it may also be creating incredibly complex new ones. Human activity may destroy most populations but also create tremendous evolutionary pressures for some which are successfully responded to. As with other mass extinctions, large ecological niches may be abandoned, which allow fundamentally new biological dynamics to emerge as they are filled by emerging species. A rapid speciation event might occur in an instance of punctuated equilibrium.

We are no doubt looking at a future with fewer life forms, but even in zones currently empty of most native organisms, some human works may be come to be largely dominated by non-humans. The eastern coyote tells us that cities may be far more lively places in the future than we assume.

If one species can develop evolutionarily significant behavioral adaptations to occupy the very heart of human civilization in <90 years, it’s inevitable to imagine that in a few hundred more, there might be an owl which is dependent on the noise from industrial operations to disorient its prey, and that prey might nest exclusively in some human-manufactured material that is commonly discarded. Migratory birds might start riding freight trains to avoid the exertion of the Pacific Flyway, and the decommissioning of the Roseville train yard might threaten these new species with extinction. An emerging rodent may at this very moment be taking the first behavioral steps towards burrowing exclusively in a particular type of scar in the earth created by a particular type of fossil fuel exploration. There’s already plenty of cases where animals exploit roadkill and other carnage created by humans—how long before one of them learns to interact with some lethal human activity so that it creates more scavenging opportunities? How long before this becomes a characteristic mode of foraging?

Clearly, the world is equally reach in strangeness as it is in horror.

CITATIONS:

  1. Take, for instance: Gerardo Ceballos et al. 2015. “Accelerated modern human-induced species loss: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances (1)5. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
  2. Mark Williams, et al. 2014. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review. http://ib.berkeley.edu/labs/barnosky/The%20Anthropocene%20Biosphere.pdf
  3. Public Broadcasting Corporation. 2014. Meet the Coywolf. http://www.pbs.org/video/2365159966/

 

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