Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 15

[Note: This is the fifteenth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 201 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]

Smashing Limits

Fearless prey was a lucky but temporary windfall jackpot for migrating hominins.  Another major asset was our ability to digest a highly diverse diet of plant and animal substances.  Because we aren’t fussy eaters, we can survive changing conditions better than many other species.  This advantage was greatly expanded by our unique ability to cook foods.  We can nourish ourselves in chilly Greenland, steamy Amazon rainforests, and the scorching Sahara.  In recent times, humans have also become the top carnivore in marine ecosystems, despite the fact that we don’t even live in the water. 

Over the span of millions of years, animal species of all types and sizes evolved time-proven anti-predator strategies for self-defense — flying, fleeing, swimming, climbing trees, diving into burrows, injecting venom, counterattack, camouflage, and so on.  These ancient strategies worked fairly well, but not every time.  Predators needed sustenance too.  Ideally, predators and prey lived in relative balance.  This encouraged wild ecosystems to maintain a state of long term sustainability.  Perfect!  It discouraged population explosions that can become ecological hurricanes.  Hooray!

When musk oxen were attacked by wolves, the group backed up together into a circle, butt to butt, with their horns facing outward, and patiently waited for the hungry predators to give up and have a good cry.  When raccoons, squirrels, or bear cubs were attacked by predators, they zipped up the nearest tree and giggled at the frustrated killers.  These excellent time-proven strategies failed when heavily armed hominins arrived with their deadly projectiles.

For many grassland herbivores, speed was an essential predator defense strategy.  Pronghorn antelopes can run for more than 20 miles (32 km).  They can flee at speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 km/h), for up to two miles (3.2 km).  Pronghorns originally evolved high speed flight to outrun hungry cats — species that went extinct maybe 12,000 years ago.  Today, wolves and coyotes are way too slow.  Sadly, ranchers have installed some fencing on the prairie, and pronghorns can’t leap fences.  The fence prevents escape, the animals pile up, and enable mass kills.

When bison are attacked by natural predators, grazing stops, and running begins — the whole herd following the leader.  Slower animals, like calves, the elderly, and the sick or injured become the main course at lunch time.  This strategy worked well for millions of years until Neanderthals and humans organized communal hunts, and chose locations where fleeing herds could be guided into traps or off cliffs.  In this situation, follow the leader escapes could be disastrous.

For eons, sea birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals found security by living on islands.  This advantage was diminished by the invention of canoes, kayaks, harpoons, and so on.  Many of these island animals lived in a way that made them highly vulnerable when hungry aliens washed up on shore.  Many had a hard time fleeing or hiding.

Critters that found security in camouflage or concealment became far more vulnerable when hominin hunters set fire to the grass.  Excellent camouflage lost its advantage when enslaved dogs joined the hunt.  Their powerful sense of smell enabled them to quickly find prey that were difficult to see.  Critters that evolved the ability to make high speed escapes became more vulnerable when hunters began riding enslaved horses.  When hunters used both horses and dogs, game was far less likely to survive.

Evolving to jumbo size was another very effective anti-predator strategy.  Big, strong, healthy, mature elephants, rhinos, and hippos had little reason to fear wild carnivores.  Size mattered.  Predators preferred to kill their youngsters, because they were less dangerous, and easier to kill.  Jumbo size species have far lower rates of reproduction.  Wee critters, like mice, bunnies, and insects, are popular items on the menus of many animals.  Consequently, they reproduce like champions. 

Unfortunately, when hominins adapted spear technology, jumbo size became a serious handicap.  Elephants were big, slow, easy to find, and had lots of meat.  Hunting large game was energy efficient.  Killing a mammoth required far fewer hours and calories than killing a thousand bunnies.  Around the world, 50,000 years ago, the land rumbled under the feet of countless megafauna, every continent a Serengeti.

Stephen Wroe summed it all up.  Over millions of years, many animals developed anti-predator strategies that were good enough to keep their species in existence.  Tragically, the arrival of tropical primates armed with specialized high-tech hunting technology radically altered the rules of predation.  Advanced kill power, combined with fearless prey, sparked a revolutionary shift.  In the new paradigm, animals had to move beyond traditional anti-predator strategies, and strive to develop new and different anti-predator strategies that were hominin-specific.  Species unable to make this transition were more likely to blink out.

Technological crutches enabled our ancestors to become direct competitors with wolves, big cats, and other carnivores.  Wherever hominins expanded, they had the ability to destabilize long running ecosystem relationships.  Crutches also made us less vulnerable to man-eating predators.  Spears enabled our ancestors to better repel the predators that could help keep hominin populations stable and healthy.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to kill foxes — soon there might be seven billion bunnies staring at cell phones (gasp!).

Colonizing Snow Country

Obviously, tropical primates evolved to survive in tropical ecosystems, which were warm all year round.  By and by, some hominins migrated out of tropical regions, and into temperate ecosystems, which had four seasons, including snow.

When tropical primates began wandering into regions with frigid winters they were confronted with new and serious challenges to survival.  They were presented with a painful warning similar to modern highway signs: Wrong Way!  Do Not Enter!  But, instead of cautiously turning around, and going back to more comfortable lands, some proceeded deeper into the domain of the frost giants, and discovered many super-cool new ways to die prematurely.  The game rules radically changed.  Warm clothing, protective shelter, new tools, and food storage boosted the odds for survival.

Outsmarting Evolution

A bedrock theme in this book is that the ecosystems which move through the millennia guided by genetic evolution tend to make transitions in a fairly graceful manner.  Ungraceful ecosystem transitions are far more common when the hominin residents naively develop a never-ending abusive relationship with the super-sticky tar baby of cultural evolution and technological innovation.

Japanese snow monkeys slowly and smoothly adapted to a temperate climate via genetic evolution.  Humans emerged maybe 300,000 years ago, when the hominin drama was already heavily dependent on cultural evolution (fire, weapons, stone tools, etc.).  Our homeland in Mother Africa had a tropical climate, and genetic evolution had provided our species with better heat tolerance.  Human genes have not made extensive changes in 300,000 years.  We remain able to live happily in tropical lands, but still can’t survive in snow country without a load of prosthetic technology. 

Between the Arctic, and the Mediterranean, there were several climate zones — ice, tundra, steppe, and woodland.  When the climate plunged into frigid periods, glaciers and ice sheets expanded downward from the north, which compressed the zones to the south.  There were times when the ice sheet extended from Scandinavia to northern Germany, and covered most of the British Isles.  At times, large areas of France were tundra.  The Mediterranean Sea, a large body of warm water, moderated the climate of southern Europe, so the temperature swings were less intense in Gibraltar, and wild foods remained abundant for the remaining Neanderthals.

One indicator of climate shifts is the types of bones found at various time periods in the layers of cave crud.  The layers associated with Neanderthals usually indicated warm, moist, woodland or forest.  Woodland conditions were identified by the bones of aurochs, red deer, boar, cave bear, leopard, giant deer, and temperate rhinoceros.  The ideal weapon for woodland ambush hunting was the thrusting spear, and it remained the perfect tool for 400,000+ years.

It’s important to understand that the more recent sites, which are associated with humans, often indicate steppe-tundra conditions, when the land was cold, dry, open, and treeless.  Steppe-tundra conditions were identified by the bones of woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, musk ox, ibex, moose, Artic fox, and reindeer.  In steppe-tundra habitat, the wide open landscape had no trees or brush for hunters to hide in.  So, their preferred weapon was the javelin, which could kill from a distance.

When humans wandered into the steppe grasslands of Eastern Europe 36,000 years ago (the “European Serengeti”), their tropical bodies were not fine-tuned for freezing weather, nor had they evolved the clever trick of hibernation.  Moving into a winter wonderland was something like colonizing Mars.  At this point, their choices were: (1) give up and freeze to death, (2) turn around and return to home sweet home, or (3) innovate like crazy and struggle to survive in a hostile climate where large game was abundant.

Health Advantages

Aside from stuff like frostbite, winter hunger, and respiratory issues from smoke filled shelters, there may have been significant health benefits to colonizing temperate ecosystems.  Our African homeland was tropical, with a climate that ranged from warm to hot year round.  Tropical ecosystems have the highest biodiversity of plant and animal species, including the entire spectrum from elephants to microbes.  The colder the ecosystem, the lower the biodiversity, because many species have not evolved the ability to survive months of intense cold.

Pathogenic tropical parasites include malaria, schistosomiasis, and sleeping sickness.  Some regions in Africa are uninhabitable due to the high risk of sleeping sickness.  Tropical viral diseases include yellow fever, and three hemorrhagic fevers: Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa.  A warm climate is also home to more species of disease transmitting insects, many of which have poor cold tolerance.

The tropics are home to numerous other species of monkeys and apes, with whom humans are more likely to swap diseases.  For example, AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, which is probably a mutation of the SIV virus that is carried harmlessly by chimps.  Today, chimps, gorillas, and humans are dying from Ebola.  It is likely that tropical diseases had far less impact 50,000 years ago, long before deforestation, bushmeat hunting, agriculture, herding, irrigation, high mobility, and explosive population growth.  A later chapter will devote more attention to disease.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Golden Thread

As I write these words, I’m wearing sweatpants and an old faded shirt.  I suspect that most readers are also wearing clothes.  Oddly, humans are the only animals that make and wear clothing.  Our ancestors evolved in the tropics of Mother Africa, where it was so warm that many folks preferred the comfortable and practical bare naked look.  Evolution spent several million years fine tuning our bodies for life on the savannah, and the result was an excellent design.

After humans migrated out of Africa, and colonized tropical Asia and Australia, some folks decided to wander north.  It was a cool place to live, and the farther north they wandered, the cooler it got.  In snow country, tropical primates were like fish out of water.  Brrrr!  They wrapped themselves in animal hides, lived in protective shelters, and huddled around warm campfires. 

Over time, they learned how to cut and sew hides into custom tailored clothing that provided better protection for both humans and body lice.  Eventually, they learned how to spin plant fibers into thread, which could be used for stitching seams together.  In the Republic of Georgia, researchers have found spun and dyed fragments of flax fibers that were 34,000 years old.  At some point, folks learned how to weave thread into fabric.  We aren’t sure when.  Cloth made from natural fibers is perfectly biodegradable, leaving few clues for modern archaeologists.

Kassia St Clair wrote an interesting book about fabric, The Golden Thread.  It’s not a comprehensive history, but a collection of snapshots — linen wrapped mummies in Egypt, the silk monopoly in China, wool production in medieval England, slavery and the rise of cotton, synthetic fibers, and so on. 

My great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cleaton Rees, was a handloom weaver in central Wales, and so were many of her female kinfolk and neighbors.  Flannel was made from wool produced by herds of sheep grazing on the surrounding deforested hillsides.  Prior to power looms and factories, millions of women spent much of their lives spinning, weaving, and sewing in their homes, where they could also tend to their children. 

I learned about St Clair’s book by reading a fascinating essay, No Wool, No Vikings.  My ancestors also include Vikings from the west coast of Norway, where the homesteads were scattered across numerous rocky islands.  Boats were how they got around.  Sheltered deep water harbors were not common, so boats were designed to ride high in the water, so they could stop in shallow places, or on beaches.  Early boats were propelled by paddles or oars. 

Sails were not used until clever folks learned how to add keels to boat bottoms.  Keels made wind powered sea travel possible.  Large, sea worthy, shallow draft boats with sails set the stage for the Viking era — several centuries of rowdy raiding, pillaging, bloodshed, and colonizing that rocked northern Europe. 

These new boats totally surprised many communities that had formerly been safe and secure for centuries.  In A.D. 98, Tacitus wrote about the Suiones, who lived along the Swedish coastline.  For them, the sea provided an invincible defensive barrier.  It was impossible for enemies to attack them by water.  For the first time, Viking ships made many safe places vulnerable to violent surprise attacks.

While history recorded the names and sagas of some heroic male warriors, it disregarded the hard working women who made the Viking era possible.  The adventurous lads were attired in wool from head to toe, slept under wool blankets, and traveled long distances in boats with woolen sails.  This required large numbers of sheep, and enormous amounts of tedious human labor.  The wool of 18 sheep was needed for each blanket.  It took two highly skilled women more than a year to make a typical square sail.

Viking sails were another revolutionary turning point in the human saga.  They enabled Scandinavians to cross the Atlantic and establish settlements, like L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.  In Viking times, most of humankind spent their entire lives fairly close to their place of birth.  Imagine gaining the ability to sail to unknown lands more than a thousand miles away.  This was a mind-blowing possibility.  It rubbished the traditional perception of space and limits.

Long distance sea travel flung open a ghastly Pandora’s Box.  Sailing ships enabled aggressive conquerors to colonize vast regions around the world.  Environmental history is loaded with horror stories of pathogens delivered by long distance sea travel — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, and countless others.  Millions of unlucky indigenous people were forcibly absorbed into oppressive alien systems.

Anyway, wool was a life preserver in snow country.  The notion of “no wool, no Vikings” can be expanded to “no wool, no Britons, Saxons, Scots, Picts, Teutons, Gauls, Vandals, etc.”  Prior to the nineteenth century, clothing was the product of extremely labor-intensive processes.  For hardworking common folks, clothing was precious, and carefully kept mended and patched.  Many likely owned little more than what they were wearing.  Like moon explorers, wool space suits enabled tropical primates to survive in chilly life-threatening environments.

In the eighteenth century cotton began displacing wool.  Large cotton plantations emerged in the American south, where legions of slaves enjoyed miserable lives.  Power looms and cotton gins sharply reduced the labor needed to produce fabric.  Cotton remained the dominant fabric until the 1970s, when synthetic fibers rose to dominance — rayon, nylon, polyester, and so on.

In recent decades, polyester clothing has shifted from cruddy, stinky, and creepy to comfortable, practical, and very cheap.  It’s made from petrochemicals, which arouse the snarling displeasure of Big Mama Nature.  A lot of the apparel sold at stores in your community is made by poor women who work long days, in nasty conditions, and maybe earn $37 per month.  The apparel industry is the world’s biggest employer of women, of whom only two percent earn a living wage.

As the human herd grows, more folks enter the consumer class, and clever marketers wickedly accelerate the pace at which super-trendy styles suddenly become horribly uncool.  So, the demand for new clothing accelerates.  “In 2010, for example, it was estimated that 150 billion garments were stitched together, enough to provide each person alive with twenty new articles of clothing,” according to St Clair.  “For the first time in human history, the vast majority of fabric being made has become disposable, something to be consumed and thrown away within weeks or months of being made.  Synthetic fibers made this possible.”

Marc Bain reported that the future of clothing is plastic (synthetic).  Wool has become an endangered fiber.  Cotton production experienced modest growth since 1980, and has now plateaued.  Polyester zoomed past cotton in 2007.  In 1980, its production was 5.8 million tons, rising to 34 million tons in 2007, and is projected to soar to 99.8 million tons by 2025.

It’s daunting to contemplate the future of clothing.  Wool production is limited by the availability of grazing land, and the need for much manual labor.  It seems impossible that the huge human herd can go back to dressing in wool.  Cotton production requires cropland, fertilizer, extra-large doses of pesticides and water, and lots of energy-guzzling machinery.

The human herd recently zoomed past 7.7 billion.  Should current cropland be used for producing more food, more fiber, or more urban spawl?  Oil is a finite nonrenewable resource, and the mother of polyester.  The easy to extract oil is about gone, and what remains is increasingly expensive to produce.  Resource limits guarantee that the plastic clothing era has an expiration date.  All industrial scale apparel production is ecologically unsustainable.  On the bright side, neither cotton nor polyester biodegrade when buried in landfills.  So, the latest fashions in coming decades might be mined from dumps.

Will climate change solve this challenge by transforming snow country into a toasty tropical nudist colony?  Our ancestors once lived like the San people of the Kalahari, in a time-proven low impact manner.  Their way of life was leisurely compared to the workaholics of snow country.  The San had no need to spend much of their lives spinning and weaving.  They had no need to construct sturdy warm cottages.  They had no need to produce and store surplus food for consumption during the icy months.  They had no need for herding livestock, or planting crops, or mining minerals, or building cities.  Imagine that.

St Clair, Kassia, The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, John Murray, London, 2018.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 14

[Note: This is the fourteenth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 200 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Expansion and Limits

William Rees noted that every species has two traits.  (1) They will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, if conditions allow their survival.  On the other hand, negative feedback can discourage new expansion, or encourage retreats.  The climate might be hostile.  Food or water resources might be scarce.  Powerful predators or hostile people might live there.  So might disease agents, like tsetse flies, malarial mosquitoes, or parasitic worms.

For walking critters, the area accessible for expansion has limits.  People with domesticated horses or camels have greater potential for long distance expansion.  The same is true for folks having watercraft that can travel on rivers, or move across seas and oceans.  Also, folks with flying machines, or driving machines.  Critters that know how to make fire and sew warm clothing can expand into snow country, far beyond the normal and appropriate habitats for tropical primates.

(2) When critters expand into new habitat, they will utilize all available resources — until they smack into limits, and have to back off.  This is no big deal for animals that live as they naturally evolved to live — without complex tools.  When a resource becomes scarce, they can switch to a substitute, if any, or they can move elsewhere, or they can turn into cat food.

Technology can expand what resources are available.  A mammoth is not a resource that an empty handed hominin can utilize, but a hominin with a thrusting spear, stone blade, and fire drill can.  Fishing with a hand net is one thing, a motorized trawler is another.  Hunter-gatherers did not mine and smelt ores, fabricate machines, drill oil wells, or replace wilderness with mega farms growing millions of tons of corn — but industrial civilizations do.

As you can see here, there are limits to expansion.  Innovation and technology can push back narrow limits, sometimes to a huge degree.  For example, 10,000 years ago, the human population was maybe 10 million.  Today, it’s seven-point-something billion, thanks our ability to cleverly bypass countless limits, our feeble ability to foresee the unintended consequences, and our reluctance to question reality when we’re enjoying regular meals. 

This artificially swollen carrying capacity can only be temporary, because it is fantastically unsustainable.  Modern folks, the most educated generation ever, have a fervent blind faith in the ridiculous idea that we have no limits.  They’ve been angrily pissing on Thomas Malthus for almost 200 years for suggesting the logical and rational ‘heresy’ that unlimited growth is impossible.

Technological innovation is the fruit of diabolically clever genius.  But… it seems that genius and wisdom rarely, if ever, meet.  Wisdom is almost invisible in our culture, a ghost, a will-o-wisp.  All the spotlights are on geeky genius, as it enthusiastically tap-dances across the stage, like a whirlwind of nerve gas.

Genius designs and builds 440 nuclear power plants — before giving any serious consideration to the enormous challenge of how to permanently store countless tons of radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years.  Wisdom cries.  Wisdom recommends turning off the lights, turning on your thinker, converting your Mercedes into a chicken coop, and discovering the evolutionary purpose of those mysterious five-toed thingees at the ends of your legs. 

Genius, the hyper-ambitious idiot savant, gives us automobiles, cell phones, hydrogen bombs, plastic diapers, landfills, and a severely rubbished ecosystem.  The bottom line is that healthy, sustainable, ordinary animals like chimps have zero need for wisdom, or genius, or foresight, or technological innovation.  They live in the manner for which they evolved, period.  Imagine that.

Unlike wild chimps, we are not free.  Industrial civilization keeps us in cages.  Miles Olson pointed out that we are essentially enslaved by the powers that control the technology we are addicted to for survival — corporations that provide energy, transportation, food production, and so on.  Chimps would not notice if all of these corporations went bankrupt next week.

Hominin Wanderers

Anyway, hominins emerged in Mother Africa, and eventually expanded around the world.  This was not unique.  Long before hominins appeared, many “ordinary” animals travelled widely — mammoths, horses, wolves, salmon, bears, bison, migratory birds, and so on.  These species did so gradually, allowing evolution to fine tune them for new conditions — with zero dependence on technological crutches.

Much later in the hominin saga, Homo sapiens emerged, maybe 300,000 years ago.  In Africa, this era is sort of a black hole in the archaeological record.  Minimal evidence has been found.  Paul Jordan wrote that the geologic chemistry of African caves was lousy for preserving bones, while the limestone caves of Europe were excellent.

By and by, our human ancestors wandered out of Africa, and entered the Middle East somewhere around 130,000 and 100,000 years ago.  Clive Finlayson suggested that this was not an exodus to escape problems, and it was not purposeful — brave pioneers eager to explore the unknown.  Folks just gradually moved into new regions over the span of many generations, like roaming herds of bison, going where their stomachs led them.

The early pilgrims were probably small groups, and there were likely multiple expeditions over the centuries.  They wandered eastward, across tropical regions of Asia, and arrived in Australia maybe 50,000 years ago.  Humans began migrating into Eastern Europe about 36,000 years ago, and arrived in Portugal 2,000 years later.  Finally, we wandered into the Americas maybe 13,000 years ago.

Moving through the tropical regions of Asia was not a daunting challenge for critters that evolved in tropical Africa.  They didn’t need clothing or warm shelters.  Meat and plant-based foods were available year round.  They may have left some African pathogens behind, and they may have discovered some new pathogens in Asia.  Tropical ecosystems are home to high biodiversity, including pathogens.

In Asia, as well as Africa, they remained vulnerable to man-eating predators that were big, strong, fast, smart, and armed with sharp teeth and claws.  In both continents, our ancestors were at a distinct disadvantage — smaller, weaker, slower, and wimpy in the teeth and claws department.  Back then, the notion that we would someday become the dominant animal on Earth seemed hilarious.

Self-defense was a primary challenge.  Folks likely kept a fire burning all night, with someone staying awake on guard duty.  They used spears, clubs, rocks, and impolite suggestions to discourage unwelcome visits from their hungry carnivorous neighbors.  In those days, being a plump juicy walking meatball 24 hours a day inspired folks to constantly pay acute attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and patterns of the surrounding reality (unlike today’s cell phone zombies).  Like all other animals, it was not common for humans to die from old age.  The other primary challenge was regularly acquiring food.  Cold turkey withdrawal from a serious addiction to food is unpleasant, often fatal.

Fearless Prey

OK, now pretend that it is 75,000 years ago, and you are a huge, powerful, ass-whooping aurochs munching on the greenery along a river in tropical India.  One fine day, a few strange animals appear in the meadow — brown, hairy, stinky, fairly small, oddly walking on two legs, and carrying long sticks.  What the <bleep> are those?  You sense no danger and continue grazing.  Healthy mature aurochs fear no other animals.  Large carnivores prefer to attack game that is less likely to tear them to bloody shreds.  Suddenly, the gang of alien critters charge and ram their sticks into you.  Game over. 

Thanks to predator control programs run by the U.S. government, wolves ceased living in the Tetons for a while.  By and by, new generations of elk and moose lost their memory of wolves.  Later, some wolves from Yellowstone began drifting back in.  They were delightfully surprised to discover herds of delicious animals that had absolutely no instinctive fear of them.  William Stolzenburg wrote that wolves could simply stroll into a herd and snatch away their calves.  Eventually, animals realized that wolves were dangerous predators, and promptly rewrote their survival manuals.

Back in Mother Africa, no critters ever forgot that lions, leopards, hyenas, and humans were vicious serial killers.  Life on the savannah was an endless crime wave, the bloody sacred dance of life.  When human pioneers wandered away from their original African home, into the great unknown, they regularly encountered (and ate) a wide variety of animals that had no fear of them — at first.

In 1921, Knud Rasmussen’s arctic expedition made a winter camp on Danish Island.  Out on a walk, “we encountered a hare so amazingly tame that we were tempted actually to essay his capture with our bare hands.  Soon afterward, we spied a lonely caribou who at once was all curiosity and came running toward us to investigate these strange visitors.  Never before had I encountered from animals such a friendly greeting.”

Tim Flannery wrote about the elephant seals that lived on Tasmania’s King Island.  Some weighed up to four tons.  When hunters found them, the seals calmly watched as the animals around them were killed.  It was a surreal experience.  The hunters felt like gods.  In 1802, when European explorers arrived at Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of Australia, the fearless kangaroos could be calmly approached and shot in the eye, or smacked with a club.

In 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was crossing into Montana, Lewis wrote, “The buffalo, elk, and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are, and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.”

On numerous islands, the first explorers found that the wildlife was incredibly tame.  Birds could be killed with a stick, and many islands were home to enormous bird communities.  Thriving colonies of fish knew nothing about hooks or nets.  When legions of sea turtles came to nest, they were sitting ducks.  For a while, newcomers to islands enjoyed an easy life of feasting —until limits began raining on the party.

Surplus Killing

Sometimes hungry predators kill more prey than they need, and abandon what they can’t use.  Often surplus carcasses are simply abandoned, tasty offerings for the local scavengers.  Surplus killing is common with many species including badgers, wolves, red foxes, leopards, lions, spotted hyenas, bears, coyotes, lynx, feral dogs, house cats, and humans.

A pack of 19 spotted hyenas once attacked a herd of Thompson’s gazelles, killing 82, and severely injuring 27.  Only 16 percent of them were eaten. 

During a severe Minnesota winter, when the snow was very deep, the deer had a hard time moving.  Wolves killed every one they found, leaving many uneaten. 

Sometimes surplus killing is deliberate and purposeful.  Weasels kill voles as winter approaches, and leave them in burrows for later dining.  In Alaska, a wolf pack killed 17 caribou in early February.  Over the next three months, they returned, dug up carcasses, and continued dining on them.

Barry Lopez spent time with native Alaskan hunters, and wrote a book about wolves.  When a wolf chases and confronts a caribou or moose, their eyes meet, and their spirits communicate, in what Lopez calls the conversation of death.  The prey can chose to resist, which sometimes works, or they can attempt to flee, which sometimes works.  A sick or elderly prey might indicate surrender — take me, let my healthy comrades live.  Or, the wolves might suddenly end the confrontation and walk away.  If there is to be a death, both predator and prey choose this outcome during their spirit-to-spirit ceremony, wrote Lopez.

Wolves and moose have coevolved for a very long time, and both comprehend the sacred power of the life and death encounter.  They are fully aware of what is happening.  Wolves know that a strong, healthy, mature moose can splatter their skulls with a swift kick.  When wolves are desperately hungry, the risk of injury is secondary to the risk of starvation.

Domesticated animals are a different story.  Many have had their wild intelligence bred out of them, rendering them passive and infantile.  So, when the hungry predator confronts them, and it’s time for the conversation of death, the wild spirit of the prey is absent — the lights are out, nobody is home, a truly pathetic situation. 

In South Africa, one leopard killed 51 sheep in a single attack.  There are a number of stories of wolves killing 20 or 30 sheep and just eating 2 or 3.  If a herd of prey makes no effort to flee, or are helplessly trapped, predators sometimes keep killing them.  In the family of life, predators evolved to be natural born killers.  Their sacred mission is to discourage population outbursts in prey species, and the consequent ecosystem impacts.  They help maintain balance.

It’s daunting to contemplate the ongoing expansion of highly skilled human hunters into new regions outside of Mother Africa, where they certainly encountered fearless prey.  Did the human hunters instinctively treat fearless critters the way hungry wolves treat clueless sheep?  As humans entered Australasia, Eurasia, and the Americas, large animal extinctions followed.  They were the most desired prey, and they had not coevolved with heavily armed tropical primates.