Although they haven't learned to accept us, wild animals are being forced, at an ever-accelerating pace—at warp speed, really—to react to us. It's not news that as humans we're a kind of super-predator. (There is no species or population so large that we cannot cause it to fail utterly, before our onslaught, our hunger; the term "too big to fail" does not apply.) But now researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz have completed a study, a meta-analysis of various species, that quantifies just how outrageous are our effects on the wild animals of the world.
It turns out that we are drastically accelerating evolution in the animals we prey on, causing them to become smaller (and therefore less appealing—or usable—as prey). The researchers, tracking the rate of change by a unit of measurement called a Darwin, have found that we are speeding up evolution by 300 percent.
From limpets to salmon to bighorn rams, we are erasing the largest of entire species, one by one and million by million. Nature—at that 3x pace—is selecting for the meek, the unbold, the shy, the secretive; for the slender little fish that slip through the trawl, rather than the fat, tasty ones; for the rams with tiny horns rather than the old battle-battered males with the spectacular full curl. It's as if such creatures must now hide their formerly uncompromising magnificence. And as the mature and dramatically visible animals vanish before the colossus of our hunger, the survivors are breeding at ever-younger ages, resulting in fewer—and smaller—offspring, sending populations closer to collapse. Harvested populations are averaging a 20 percent reduction in body size from previous generations, and the age of first reproduction is a whopping 25 percent earlier, reports Chris Darimont, PhD, lead author of the study.
In this downsizing of the grand, this unprecedented disruption of the way the world works, the wildest of the wild animals are vanishing.
I'm not saying that cows and sheep and pigs and chickens and dogs and cats are unworthy. I'm saying I don't want a world without bighorn rams and rhinos and zebras, and I believe that the places they need in which to be bighorn rams and rhinos and zebras are likely the anchors that keep so much else in place, whether we know and appreciate it or not.
Not that wild country, and the wild things borne up out of that country, should have to be utilitarian to survive. These beautiful creatures, and the beautiful landscapes that sustain them—and that they in turn, with their living and dying, sustain—possess a value and a virtue regardless of our dwindling connection to them. But it seems that there is a virtue and a wisdom in keeping some things beyond our reach: that the protection of wildness itself is imperative.
I think of us as teetering on a steep slope, having vaulted momentarily to the top, where we stand on the shoulders of giants. And now everywhere we turn, looking down, the world over which we scrambled to get to this supreme vantage is becoming smaller.
Maybe we could accept a world of smaller limpets. Maybe even a world without pandas. But as we shrink and diminish and lessen what we touch, we make our position at the top ever more precarious. We have touched, and are consuming, everything.
The world is very old, and we are so new. I like the feeling of awe—what the late writer Wallace Stegner called "the birth of awe"—in beholding wild country not yet reduced by man. I like to remember that it is wild country that gives rise to wild animals; and that the marvelous specificity of wild animals reminds us to wake up, to let our senses be inflamed by every scent and sound and sight and taste and touch of the world. I like to remember that we are not here forever, and not here alone, and that the respect with which we behold the wild world matters, if anything does.
Rick Bass's new memoir, The Wild Marsh, will be published by Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt in July.
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