Left Behind

The pronghorn, sometimes called the pronghorn antelope, is neither an antelope nor a deer, but a unique ungulate that lives only in North America.

In the animal biz, people are obsessed with the gold medalers in any category: Who’s the biggest? Who’s the smallest? Who’s got the longest penis? Well, sometimes it’s more illustrative to know who the second-place runner-up is. And the pronghorn is the second-fastest animal alive, capable of reaching the awesome speed of 61 mph, and unlike the cheetah, sustaining it for longer than a sprint.

Now, the fastest land predator in North America is the coyote (41 mph), followed by the gray wolf (40 mph.) So next to a pronghorn, they’re going to get left in the dust. And keep in mind, evolution is conservative; it’s not going to give you skills that are unnecessary for your survival. So riddle me this: If the only animal alive that can catch a pronghorn lives in Africa, why did the pronghorn evolve to be so fast?

Answer: To outrun the native North American cheetah, of course.

In the Pleistocene, North America looked a lot more like modern Africa:

Note the lions, hyenas, wild horses, elephants (mastodons), rhinos and hippos. In fact, the only clue that this is America is that unfortunate elk. Additionally, there were giant ground sloths and native North American camels. Pronghorns, now alone in their taxonomic group, once belonged to a family of 22 different ungulates. Now they’re what you call a “living fossil,” a survivor of a distant time that’s outrun all of its competition, and is still outrunning the ghost of a cheetah that went extinct 10,000 years ago.

There are two main points I want to make:

1.) If you didn’t know it, welcome to the Holocene Extinction Event. If you think the mass extinction of species began with the industrial revolution, think again. We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years. Humanity is an asteroid. The fact that the American lion, cheetah, mammoth, etc., died out 10,000 years ago, which is exactly when the Clovis civilization came over from Siberia, is more than coincidence. We literally hunted every big mammal we could into extinction. Oh, there are respectable scientists who believe the mass extinction had to do with climate change, or some sort of “hyperdisease.” To them, I point out that the exact same fucking thing happened in Australia 47,000 years ago. (Remember the last post? All those cool giant kangaroos and such? All of them were native Australian megafauna that went extinct after humans showed up.) And how do you explain that the last mammoths went extinct only in 1,700 B.C. — the Greeks were building temples, people — on a Siberian island never habitated by us?

Once, there were many forms of human. We were the ones that succeeded, mainly because, unlike the Neanderthal and others, we didn’t ever stop killing. But we can evolve; the invasive Clovis civilization eventually collapsed, giving rise to the Native American, who are/were, for all their shortcomings, much more in harmony with nature. (Or, at least, the “new” nature.) If Homo sapiens the species could “go native” and stop extincting other species, we might just find that transcendent “Age of Aquarius” we’re looking for, and get out of the Holocene for good.

2.) Here’s where the Mad Scientist in me comes out: What if we could bring back the cheetah? I am obsessed with the idea of “rewilding” America. I want to see a return of the buffalo and the wolf, and if possible, a return of some of the megafauna we killed off a mere 10,000 years ago. Don’t laugh; it’s happened before. The Spanish re-introduced the horse to the American West, and it’s doing very well for itself… mainly because the horse evolved here. Of course, it has no natural predators anymore, and nobody wants to shoot a horse, so it’s overgrazing and becoming a huge problem. Why not bring back the American lion? We could either substitute an African lion, or rebreed the original American lion from DNA, “Jurassic Park” style. I envision an American West in which private prairies are grazed by bison and Przewalski’s horses, and osage oranges are pushed down by browsing mastodon. Camels roam the deserts of Arizona, where they’re preyed on by the Mexican wolf. And on the plains of Wyoming, a cheetah erupts from the grass, and the pronghorn, so tired from outrunning everything all these millenia, is finally caught.

Tomorrow: An endangered species of one.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

5 responses to “Left Behind

  • Will

    Hey, dude,
    firstly, thanks for the educational and hilarious distraction you have given me for the past few hours. however, i have a bone to pick with you on this one cuz it seems like your ideals my have clouded the facts from you. the clovis culture had been around for thousands of years before the holocene extinction, and there is some speculation as to if they came from europe before the beringian tribes crossed over through into alaska (which might actually help your arguement, dont know about the truth of european stuff, but still…). the holocene extinction occured because the ice age ended and the ice caps retreated. warmer climates killed off many of the plants which the larger herbavores such as colombian mammoths and giant ground sloths used as staples to their diet. After these large mammals died off, most of their highly speciallized predators who couldnt adapt died off as well. the animals who survived were able to adapt quickly to the sudden change (it was actually warmer than it is now for a few thousand years) and had a more varied diet, such as grizzly bears, wolves, ect. or were able to digest the new plants growing in their habitat, like the pronghorn or the bison. also a fun fact that i dont think holds much relevence, but i think is cool is that for a long time after this even, the great plains were a barren desert.

    • quantumbiologist

      First of all, you’re welcome, and welcome aboard. Secondly, you know as well as I do that there are competing theories on the matter, and if you don’t subscribe to the Blitzkrieg Theory, so be it. Let me back it up:

      I’m not going to answer the question of Europeans crossing over before the Beringians, because I know nothing about it. But the roughly 2,000 years that elapsed between the arrival of the Clovis and the beginning of the Holocene extinction? Well, I don’t imagine we extincted everything overnight.

      Though climate change assuredly weakened those large North American species, I believe they ultimately vanished at the point of a spear. Why? Because plants can colonize ground just as fast as ice can retreat. And as the continent grew hotter, the browsers and grazers wouldn’t have shrugged and starved; they would have migrated north as their plants of choice did. The American Africa would simply have become the Canadian Africa.

      But more importantly, I’m convinced by the Blitzkrieg Theory because I’m aware of mankind’s tremendous power to exterminate. The Clovis and their immediate descendants were hunter/gatherers, as far as we know, and if modern day mankind’s appetites are any indicator, they could easily have burned through entire species, especially ones with no instinctual fear of them. Consider this: Scientists estimate that between 20 thousand and 2 million species went extinct in the 20th century. And, of course, the temperature in the 20th century rose faster than the end of any glacial age. So what percent of those species would you guess went extinct directly by global warming, rather than by hunting and habitat destruction?

  • Will

    what you say is true, but think about this:
    you have stated that the ice age america would be very much like africa, and this is true. so why didn’t the same extinction occur in africa where more people lived with similar technology? but here is the snag. only when africa was introduced to guns did species start going extinct on mass scale there. so yes, humans have the inclination to kill off others species without so much as a thought, but lets look at an american/ african comparisson.
    both had similar species, if anything american species were larger and more capable of killing humans.
    both had human habitation armed with nothing more than spears and flint knives.
    americas climate changed, africa’s did not.
    more people lived in africa than in america.
    but only the american megafauna went extinct (until the roman colloseums @ least)

    • quantumbiologist

      Easy. Because we co-evolved with other species there. The ecology of Africa always included us. When humans came across the land bridge — from either side — we were an unknown predator to which the native fauna had not developed defenses. Same goes for Australia and New Zealand, where the climate did not change as much but thousands of large mammalian and avian species went extinct within a few thousand years of human contact.

  • The Pretender « The Quantum Biologist

    […] series to something more light-hearted: Superpowers! We’ve already covered super-speed (The Pronghorn), mind control (Cordyceps Fungi), and regeneration (The Axolotl). Today’s superpower: […]

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