Straight Tusked Elephant
I had been thinking about writing about this again and George Monbiot spurred me to write this, following another eloquent, passionate but depressing counsel of despair in the guardian yesterday. George argued that hominims had been driving megafauna to extinction possibly for more than a million years, and drew parallels with modern day elephant slaughter in Africa.
I would look at it another way, as I have previously eg here, here and here. Straight-tusked Elephants were the major ecosystem engineer animals in Europe (alongside rhino, hippos and other smaller mammals like Beavers) over a period of several millions years. Ancestors of modern elephants appeared in the middle miocene about 15 million years ago and returned after each cool phase right up until the previous interglacial to this one, the Ipswichian.
This fascinating paper by Gary Haynes lays out what the impact on landscape and ecosystem may have been from such elephantine giants. Massive long distance trails worn smooth by elephant feet, trees pushed over, bark ripped off. Special clay deposits are sought out by modern elephants (creating Bai in the process) and palaeological evidence indicates the giants of the past did the same, and where large number of animals died, created “Beast Solonetz” sites which attracted human hunters, scavengers and artists. Mammoth bone was extensively used to create talismans, artwork and jewellery going back at least 40,000 years and some of it is staggeringly beautiful.
I was wondering how many straight tuskers there might have been in England in the Ipswichian. It’s difficult to be sure but the best estimates for african forest elephant density are 0.5 to 1 ele per km2 and they weight on average just over 2 1/2 tonnes. Straight tuskers grew to 10 tonnes and 4.3m high. Savannah elephants occur at a higher density (having engineered their ecosystem to provide for them) and can occur at up to 6 per km2. on this basis, I would give a conservative estimate of 1 straight tusker per 1km2 for Ipswichian England. That would mean there were about 250,000 straight tuskers in England, assuming the were able to survive across the whole of England, which this map indicates they did.
Distribution map of Palaeoloxodon antiquus finds by DagdaMor (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Modern elephants deposit up to 200kg of dung per day, so scaling up, Straight tuskers deposited 500kg per day, perhaps in 15 piles of 35kg. That would explain why the pleistocene was a paradise for dung beetles. As this recent research shows, the pleistocene dung beetles were species of mosaics of forest and open habitats.
I don’t think it’s too fanciful to wonder whether humans evolved into the species we are, because elephants and their like created and maintained the african savannahs, the mammoth steppe and the open mosaic of Ipswichian Europe that were such fertile hunting grounds for our ancestors. So they were our gods; they created the earth and the landscape early humans depended on and created the habitats for the animals and plants which humans used for all their needs.
It may be true (and from my reading of the literature it’s not quite a clear cut as George suggests) that Cro Magnon people extirpated the Straight Tuskers from Europe during the last Ice age. If they did, then it was people who created the dark (foreboding) Holocene Forest some people call the primeval wildwood.
In which case the semi-natural was born in Britain long before the neolithic; and we killed our original gods millennia ago, then forgot about them.
Photo by PePeEfe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons