Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem--and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk

Overview

Terra is one of the important books of our time—and it will change the way you think about the world.” —Neil Shubin, Provost, Field Museum of Natural History

The natural world as humans have always known it evolved close to 100 million years ago with the appearance of flowering plants and pollinating insects during the age of the dinosaurs. Its tremendous history is now in danger of profound, catastrophic disruption. In this brilliant synthesis of evolutionary biology, ...

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Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem--and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk

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Overview

Terra is one of the important books of our time—and it will change the way you think about the world.” —Neil Shubin, Provost, Field Museum of Natural History

The natural world as humans have always known it evolved close to 100 million years ago with the appearance of flowering plants and pollinating insects during the age of the dinosaurs. Its tremendous history is now in danger of profound, catastrophic disruption. In this brilliant synthesis of evolutionary biology, paleontology, and modern environmental science, Michael Novacek shows how we can understand and prevent what he and others call today’s “mass extinction event.”

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Paleontologist Novacek (Time Traveler) tells the story of our ecosystem and warns that humans are transforming it so drastically that it may not be habitable in the future. Discussing the evolutionary processes that led to the diversification of all life, he asserts that people who reject the theory of evolution impede efforts to preserve the ecosystem because they ignore the importance of biological diversity. To demonstrate biodiversity's crucial role, he considers the evolution of flowering plants and the myriad insect species that pollinate them, stressing that as we decimate these insect populations, we interfere with "the very core of what has been built by evolution." Extinction is normal during the course of evolution, but studies cited by the author show that every year tens of thousands of species may now be going extinct, thousands of times faster than they would naturally do so, as humans exploit the ecosystem by cutting forests, exhausting sources of fresh water, polluting the air, destroying habitats, depleting the ocean and introducing invasive species to new habitats. We can avoid this, Novacek contends, if we learn to appreciate the history of our ecosystem in all its beauty and complexity, and have the will to reverse our destructive course. His timely book, with its wealth of lucidly presented information, should go a long way toward promoting this appreciation. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The natural world known to humans is the result of evolutionary forces that have expanded and contracted for nearly 100 million years. Bursts of evolutionary variety have given way to extinction events, some of which have been more catastrophic than others. But never has our planet been more in danger of extinction than it is right now. Paleontologist Novacek (senior vice president, American Museum of Natural History; Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs) takes an unflinching look at what humans have done over time and in more recent years. Combining paleontology, evolutionary biology, and environmental science, he shows how these three perspectives can bring us to a better understanding of the "mass extinction event" that threatens this planet if changes aren't implemented now. Among the causes explored are consumption patterns, pollution caused by humans, land usage, and activities that contribute to global warming. The rate at which our world is degrading is alarming, according to Novacek, but the situation is not hopeless. The question is whether humankind will do the hard work needed. For larger public and academic libraries.
—Gloria Maxwell

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374531416
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,467,842
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Novacek, Senior Vice President and Provost of Science at the American Museum of Natural History, is the author of Time Traveler (FSG, 2002) and Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs (1996). He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

TERRA

Part One
THE WAY OF THE WORLD
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
 

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

1
A CREATURE IN THE FOREST
The most precious things in the world may be the things we never see. Perhaps at this very moment in a rain-doused stand of pristine forest in the Truong Son Mountains in central Vietnam, one of the last and least explored wildernesses on Earth, a creature with long, slightly recurved horns is emerging from an undergrowth of bamboo, palms, and saplings in the shadow under the forest canopy. A fleeting sunburst between the trees highlights an elegant black stripe on a chestnut back that looks like a signature of ancient calligraphy. As the 220-pound animal bends its thick neck down to a stream, it plants the cloven hoof of each foot on the bank. The sun catches the sharp etch of a white band above the feet, an anatomical accoutrement that looks like a bad practical joke, as if the animal were sporting black-and-white spats. In the shadows a tricolor tail of brown, cream, and black whisks against the first battalion of morning flies.
This scenario is entirely plausible but has probably never been witnessed. Yet the beast by the stream is not a fiction. This is the mysterious saola, scientifically known as Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, of Vietnam and Laos. The name saola is a local one, referring to the beast's horns (sao, spindle; la, post), which resemble the parallel posts on the spinning wheels used by people in the region.
The saola is one of the rarest creatures on Earth; few specimens have been collected, and scientists have never seen this animal in the wild. Most biologists, like George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, have tracked it by surveying the horns and other remnants of hunting forays in villages along the border between Laos and Vietnam. Most remarkably, thesaola was first discovered by the Vietnamese ecologist Do Tuoc during a field survey of central Vietnam's Vu Quang Nature Reserve in 1992. In 1812 the great naturalist Baron Georges Cuvier had declared that no more large, hoofed, herbivorous mammals would be discovered in any part of the world. But here is this creature whose discovery did not come until the last decade of the twentieth century.
Aside from a few color markings and its long recurved horns, the saola looks like a typical hoofed mammal-say, a deer or an antelope. Indeed, its appearance is a helpful clue to its reasonable scientific identification. The saola is related to deer and antelope, but it is also very different from these animals. The scientific name Pseudoryx nghetinhensis is from the Greek, meaning "false oryx," suggesting the saola is deceptively similar in appearance, especially in its long curved horns, to the better-known oryxes; the second part of the name simply means "of nghetinh," a regional name that combines the names of two provinces in Vietnam, Ha Tinh and Nghe An, where the animal has been seen. Pseudoryx denotes the group, in traditional classification the genus, to which it belongs. The second name is meant to distinguish this species from all other species of Pseudoryx. Thus the horse, Equus caballus, and the donkey, Equus asinus, are separate but similarspecies that both belong to the genus Equus. The saola is so distinct, however, that it gets its own genus; there is as yet no other species of Pseudoryx.
As for the broader affinities of Pseudoryx, the cloven hooves, the shapes of its grinding teeth, and the structure of its anklebones are giveaways, demonstrating that the saola belongs to a diverse order of mammals known as artiodactyls, the cloven-hoofed mammals that include antelopes, bovids, giraffes, deer, camels, pigs, and hippos. Surprisingly, there is new evidence from DNA and anatomical features that whales might have diverged from some very early and primitive artiodactyl group, perhaps from a lineage that also led to pigs and hippos. Artiodactyls, the dominant large plant-eating mammals of today, were even more diverse in the past. The saola fits clearly within the artiodactyl family Bovidae, the group that contains cows, bison, many African antelopes, goats, and sheep, but just where it fits within this family is a trickier problem. Some students of saola anatomy have assigned it to the tribe Caprini, which includes goats, chamois, musk oxen, and relatives, but recent studies based on DNA put it within the tribe Bovini, which includes cattle and buffalo. For now this alliance seems to stick, and more comprehensive studies of both genes and anatomy are anticipated.
Since the saola was first discovered, researchers have accumulated only a small collection of twenty partial specimens, including three complete skins and two skulls. The saola has even taken pictures of itself, images snapped when the animal unknowingly tripped a camera as it trudged through the steep thick forest of the Truong Son. Yet these animals have not been observed up close by anyone except the people of the forest who have hunted them. Today locating the whereabouts of the saola is both a scientific mission and a sacred one, for this precious animal is making its last stand. It is estimated that only a few hundred saolas may be left in the forests of Vietnam and Laos, in a total area of about two thousand square miles (five thousand square kilometers). Sadly ironic is the increased local effort to find and kill these animals because of their great interest to outsiders and their presumed monetary value. In the Vu Quang Reserve twenty-one saolas were killed and three were taken alive and brought to Hanoi between 1992 and 1994. In Laos seven saolas were caught, but only one survived, and then just for three weeks. This individual, a female, was shy and docile, allowing herself to be petted and hand-fed. The Hmong people of Laos call the saola saht supahp, "the polite animal." Unfortunately, it may be too polite for its own good; its numbers are dwindling as it falls prey to hunters andits habitat is winnowed away by loggers and farmers. In recent years measures have been taken to establish more nature reserves and to strengthen their protection; a new initiative extends some of these protected areas across the international border between Vietnam and Laos.
In the spring of 2002 I had a chance to observe at close range the efforts to preserve Vietnam's wildlife, though that was not my primary assignment. At the behest of my employer, the American Museum of Natural History, I traveled to Hanoi with the museum's president, Ellen Futter, and several other officials to announce the opening of the first major U.S. exhibition on Vietnamese culture since the Vietnam War. The exhibit, to be curated by Dr. Laurel Kendall of the American Museum, an expert in Asian religious and cultural ritual and practices, was jointly developed with the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and its director, Nguyen Van Huy, was cocurator. The topic turned out to be as complex as it was fascinating. Vietnam has more than fifty ethnic groups, not all of which could be fairly represented in one exhibit. Nevertheless, the exhibition opened to wide acclaim and enthusiastic audiences in New York in the spring of 2004, and by spring 2006 it had been installed in Hanoi.
I was also in Vietnam for a second, biological purpose. Soon after arriving, I joined Dr. Eleanor Sterling, the talented director of the American Museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), launched in 1995 to link the formidable effort being made by the museum's curators to discover diverse species all over the world with conservation needs and action. Vietnam, with its cultural diversity, its dynamic economy, and its unique but threatened natural habitats, was a logical target. In 1998 the CBC had joined forces with the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR) in Hanoi, the World Wildlife Fund Indochina Programme, and BirdLife International's Vietnam Programme to make an exhaustive survey of important forestland and to apply the findings to help the government establish secure reserves. In addition to the research and conservation applications, the project was intended to enlighten and educate people about the tenuous natural wonders of Vietnam. To this end, Eleanor wrote, with coauthors Martha Maud Hurley and Le Duc Minh, Vietnam: A Natural History, a comprehensive and handsomely illustrated volume which was published in 2006.
Vietnam and Laos for decades had been responding to local and international demand for timber. During the 1990s, Vietnam ranked secondonly to Thailand in exports of wood from mainland Southeast Asia to the European Union and Japan. By the end of the century logging in Vietnam had reputedly declined; there had been a sharp decrease in economically retrievable timber, and the government acknowledged that runaway depletion of forestland would soon deprive the country of this resource entirely. Deforestation, a complex process not simply confined to logging, is not always easy to estimate, especially when reliable records of past forest cover and forest loss are nonexistent. The real rate at which deforestation in Vietnam slowed is controversial, and reports about it are conflicting. Of main concern to us were the primary forests, or those that show little or no evidence of past or present human exploitation. Vietnam purportedly lost a staggering 51 percent of its primary forests between 2000 and 2005.
The logging industry is the blunt edge of the wedge into the forest. Logging roads become lifelines for migrating people who slash and burn, grow crops, hunt for meat, establish villages, carry on commerce, build dams and irrigation systems, and develop towns and cities-in other words, do all the things people normally do when they colonize new land. We have seen this pattern of invasion throughout the world-in the Congo, in the Amazon, and, a few centuries back, in the virgin woodlands of North America. Whatever people gain from the forest in the way of goods and cropland, they may lose in the form of invaluable biodiversity. Vietnam is now a signature example of this problem. In its postindependence phase since the war with the United States came to an end in the 1970s, the Vietnamese government relocated almost 5 million people from the crowded lowlands along the coast and the Mekong Delta to the biologically diverse uplands. The exploitation of land was intentional; logging was succeeded by agriculture, including vast plantations of such cash crops as coffee. Unfortunately, the government officials who endorsed this transformation overlooked the fact that these fragile upland forests were incapable of supporting so huge an influx of humanity.
If these threats to Vietnam's natural habitats weighed heavily on Eleanor Sterling, she did not show it. Two mornings after my arrival in Hanoi she greeted me at my hotel with a broad smile. Eleanor knows what it is like to experience the profound and magical isolation of the forest. Her dissertation fieldwork as a doctoral candidate at Yale's School of Forestry required that she observe, over several years, the secretive comings and goings of lemurs in a thick stand of rainforest on an uninhabited island off the northeasterncoast of Madagascar. But Eleanor is not simply a reclusive scientist; she is also a person comfortable with the world at large, an internationalist, who quickly learned the most appropriate dialect of Vietnamese for her work. Her sincerity and quiet optimism attract many fans and young team members, who believe in her and in what they are doing.
"Today we are going to the institute. They are a great bunch, good friends, great scientists," Eleanor announced.
"Will I get to see a saola specimen?" I asked. I wanted to skip the main course for the ice-cream cone.
"Yes, but first you will have to work."
In this case, work meant a meeting or two or three, an activity that fails to delight me. I too am a field person, and I had just escaped a New York full of meetings. Fortunately, the staff at the IEBR turned out to be delightful. Particularly memorable was Professor Nguyen Tien Hiep, who greeted Eleanor with a hug of sibling affection. Dr. Hiep loves the field too. With his wide, bright eyes and a round face always poised for a laugh, he rhapsodizes about plant life like a forest wise man, a youthful Yoda. We followed Dr. Hiep up a few flights of external stairs, like a rickety fire escape, to his office. There we sat and sipped tea as he proudly showed us his latest pressings of plants collected in the wild. His workplace, with its windows open to rustling trees that crowded the building, seemed more like a tree house than an academic office.
The forests of Vietnam are distinctive not just for their saolas and other rare mammals. Their flowers and other plants, many of them not found anywhere else in the world, are showy and diverse. A special gift to Vietnam is its cycad flora. These spiky, somewhat palmlike plants are not palms at all, but nonflowering plants that hold seeds in cones consisting of overlapping seed-bearing leaves. The blossomlike appearance of these seed-bearing structures has inspired some botanists to argue that they are closely related to the most primitive flowering plants. But cycads preceded the appearance of flowering plants by more than 100 million years. They heralded the Mesozoic Era, the age of the dinosaurs, beginning about 250 million years ago, while there is no evidence of a true flowering plant that predates about 130 million years before the present. Cycads grow in many habitats in Vietnam, including the steep forests in the Truong Son Mountains. Indeed, Vietnam is enriched with a diversity of twenty-four species, a number that exceeds that of any other country in Asia.
Cycads are slow-growing plants. Removal of a few of them can put a whole population at risk because they do not rapidly reproduce new plants. Many of Vietnam's cycad species are threatened by deforestation as well as by selective picking of the most handsome individuals for ornamentals. Gardens in China, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea are often the destinations of these transplants. Dr. Hiep has led a national effort to save the cycads of Vietnam, as well he should. The 2006 Red List of Threatened Species, issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), rates sixteen of Vietnam's cycad species as either endangered or vulnerable.
When it comes to flowering plants, the bounty of Vietnam's flora is impossible to summarize quickly. I'll mention just one group. The moist forests and marshes harbor a spectacular array of orchids, as many as 897 named species and perhaps more than 200 or 300 that are yet to be named. Orchids are marvelously fastidious. Many of them are pollinated or fed on by only one species of insect. Some orchids lure insects to pollinate by mimicking the shape and color of the opposite sex of a visiting insect. The deceived insect-a fly, wasp, bee, or something else-may indulge in unproductive copulation, but in the meantime, it will have deposited pollen it has carried from another plant. The seductive orchid has thus accomplished its mission to propagate. Some orchids have long, tubular flowers that require insects with bizarrely elongate mouthparts-primarily flies, moths, and butterflies-to feed on the nectar they contain deep within the base of the tube. As the insect probes, the foreign pollen grains on its head and antennae come off and stick to the orchid host. Other orchids trap insects in nectar-filled cavities, allowing their liberation only when the incarcerated insect, in its furious attempt to escape, has left its pollen behind. Charles Darwin was obsessed with orchids, both for their beauty and for their biology. Horticulturalists love them. Many orchids are threatened by the same deforestation and avid collecting that threaten cycads. In Vietnam, slipper orchids (genus Paphiopedilum) are in particular danger. Several of these slipper orchid species qualify for the Vietnam Red Data Book, although all species are globally threatened.
We climbed back out of Dr. Hiep's eyrie and followed him to the main building of the IEBR. Warmth and humidity filled a room where several scientists were gathered around a table. A colorful map with detail as intricate as the woven patterns in an oriental rug extended along a whole wall,showing in multiple colors the complex patchwork of Vietnam's natural and developed tracts of land. Dr. Hiep and his colleagues began talking very earnestly about the effort to survey the rich forests in Vietnam's border territories. The conversation segued to a discussion of the planned international reserve that would cross into Laos. Concerns were raised: there were too few scientists to do the work and too few being trained; the government was being less than generous with the support needed to carry out such ambitious scientific and conservation projects; collections were poorly housed, and buildings needed renovation. Eleanor was patiently encouraging, noting the gains that had been made and expressing hope for more support in the future.
I can't recall the next meeting in detail. Eleanor and I were in another office, an elongate one with a narrow window at one end and a large rug in the center that formed the landmass for a coffee table. The rug was surrounded by dull leather couches that reminded me of those I had seen in Mongolia in its Communist days. We were supposed to discuss the establishment of a major natural history museum in Vietnam, a splendid idea. I tried to engage, but my jet lag had not yet dissipated, and the day was long, the cups of tea notwithstanding.
Eleanor nudged me as if to say, "Now you get to see your saola." We followed our guides through a patchwork of buildings into an alleyway, across a street, then across a weed-choked plot of ground-no orchids or cycads here. More buildings. A door was forcefully opened into a building not much larger than a two-car garage, and we entered a very dark room with antlers, skeletons, skulls piled up on shelves, specimens in jars, and a few display cases with some stuffed mounts. This would have to do for Vietnam's temporary natural history museum. As we threaded our way among the cabinets, someone pointed to my left. There, barely distinguishable from other shadows in the display case, was a stuffed mount of Pseudoryx nghetinhensis.
The next day I arose at 4:30 a.m. as I had on the previous mornings in Hanoi. After years of travel to eastern Asia I have learned that the photoperiod shift that comes with flying west over the Pacific, while disastrous for late-afternoon meetings, is perfect for early-morning activity. I joined my museum colleague Gary Zarr for a jog around Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of the city. Hanoi is magical at this hour. The French colonial buildings, mostly pale yellow with white trim, burn gold in the dawn. The purple of the morning sky conceals a pollution that soon rises with the buzz of thousands of small motorcycles recently imported from China. The surface of the lake itself ripples like waves of blue silk in the morning breeze. This is a view of the lake from afar, however. Up close, bits of trash float on a reddish brown aqueous film, a mixture reminiscent of those bowls of nuoc nam sauce served with delectable spring rolls. But here the resemblance ends; indeed, the lake itself offered the aroma of dead fish faintly laced with sewage.
Hoan Kiem Lake means "Lake of the Returned Sword," a name inspired by an elegant legend. In the fifteenth century King Le Loi finally repulsed Ming invaders from China after ten years of struggle. His victory relied on a magic sword provided by local fishermen. The war over, the king went for a recuperative boat ride on the lake only to be accosted by a giant talking turtle that requested the return of the magic sword. The king complied with gratitude, and the name for the lake has stuck. The turtle is not a fabrication. It does not talk, as far as we know, but it is spectacular, the largest and rarest of all softshell turtles, at 6 feet long and 550 pounds (250 kilograms). The turtle's identification is somewhat controversial, but most experts believe that it is a giant variant of the Shanghai softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei. It is not known how many of these monsters live in HoanKiem Lake, perhaps as few as only two or three. Now and again one of them sticks its head out or even floats its body over the unctuous surface of the water. Such sightings are the source of great excitement and celebration, a credible Loch Ness monster making its rare appearance and, according to Vietnam tradition, a very good omen. The lake in its polluted condition, however, seems a highly unlikely sanctuary for even the few turtles that remain. Still, Hanoi has invested serious money in dredging centuries of accumulated sewage-infused mud and removing excess nitrogen, phosphates, and other nutrients that have spawned algal blooms that die off and poison the lake, killing fish and possibly the giant turtles in the process.
On this, our leisure day, Gary and I turned out to be the only tourists from the American Museum ready for migration. The others in the party decided to stay and explore Hanoi, a cultural nexus we barely knew. The two of us took the short flight to the port city of Da Nang, where we were greeted by our guide, Traung, who had already received the news that our ranks had thinned. He was gamely holding up a sign reading "Gary" and "Mike" with strikeouts through the names "Ellen," "Lisa," and "Linda." Our first stop was the Cham Art Museum, an elegant building in typical pale yellow filled with magnificent statues commemorating various gods, kingdoms, wars, and heroic acts. Da Nang of course is a name and a city of legend for another history. It was of profound importance to any American who remembered the progress of the so-called Vietnam War or followed it as it occurred with great interest and anxiety. The city had been used as an air base by U.S. forces, although the Vietcong concurrently had managed to burrow a complex network of tunnels underneath it. This prompted me to ask Traung about the war.
"Which war? Oh, you mean the American war. We have had so many wars, you see," he replied.
Before coming to Vietnam, I had imagined its postwar landscape as being the epitome of scorched Earth. But everywhere I looked there was green, a combination of richly wooded hills separated by rice paddies connected by huge networks of irrigation channels. This seemed a place of bounty even for the 80 million people who lived there. Where was the land laid waste by war and poisoned by Agent Orange? It turned out that my impression was too myopic to be accurate. U.S. armed forces had sprayed Vietnam's countryside with more than 20 million gallons (76 million liters) of Agents Orange, White, Blue, Green, Purple, and Pink, a kaleidoscope of toxins aimedat defoliating both forests and agricultural fields and thus revealing the lurking enemy. Many of these agents contained the highly toxic substance dioxin. Apparently the effects of this noxious cloud remain; satellite images show the straight lines of scars through forestland extending for more than twenty miles, the defoliated areas where vegetation has failed to grow back. Some of the soil also contains a high level of toxins and thus a low potential for renewal. As Eleanor has noted in her recent book, scientists are still striving to understand more precisely the effects of these defoliants.
The high point of our tour was a visit to Hoi An, a port of exquisitely preserved buildings, some dating back to the fifteenth century. Traung took us to his favorite restaurant. Through years of travel I have learned to be wary of such arrangements. A special deal made between a tour guide and restaurateur usually results in what is at best mediocre and at worst execrable food. Such was my experience at the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and the Great Pyramids of Teotihuacán outside Mexico City. But there was no reason for suspicion in this case. Gary, Traung, and I were treated to nine courses of the most astounding food I had ever savored. I remember a single scallop floating in a swirl of vinegar, sea salt, ginger, lime juice, and chives. The scallop seemed outrageously delicate and fresh, as if I were scooping it out of some enchanting tide pool. The fish was just as good, and the beer ample. The meal had a certain meaning to me beyond its culinary powers. All its components-the icy crispness of soybean shoots, the slightly steamed slivers of asparagus, the potato chip-thin slices of ginger, the delicate fish broth whitened with coconut milk, and the strategic shocks of tiny green and orange peppers-seemed to flow together like an ecosystem of food. As we stacked a pyramid of cans of 3,3,3 ("Ba, Ba, Ba") beer on the table, Traung grabbed a guitar off the wall and started singing Vietnamese folksongs and American rock oldies. I took the guitar and did a slurred version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and an even less refined rendition of the Brazilian masterpiece "Felicidade." There was a call for one more round of Ba, Ba, Ba.
We slowly disengaged from the restaurant, moved out to a blinding afternoon sun and headed to dockside and the shade-offering tin roofs over the town market. The eruption of bounty at the market was at its daily peak; displayed was a range of fruits, vegetables, fish, and spices almost obscenely sumptuous in their textures, smells, and colors. Although most of the world subsists on a handful of crops-primarily wheat, rice, soybeans, and corn-more than fifteen hundred species of plants serve as food for humans. I could swear they all were in the Hoi An market.
Near the edge of the market was a small stall where a rotund, elderly man sat like a Buddha on an ornately enameled stool, his scowling wife behind him. Surrounding the man were a great number of large glass jars, each with something long and helical suspended in a murky root beer-colored liquid. The submerged objects in question were snakes, and this was the famous snake wine, a strange concoction that is believed to provide acute virility, a sort of organic folk medicinal answer to Viagra. Before we could demur, the old man dipped cups in a very large jar and offered it to Gary and me. Not bad, a bit like a cognac that had failed some refinement. The appreciation on my face registered. The old lady squinted and laughed, exclaiming, "Good night!"
It was not our intention to indulge in this patronage. Snake wine is a problematic product. Many of the snakes used for the purpose, including several cobras, were endangered species. But customs are not easily abandoned here and elsewhere. Perhaps the most emblematic of victims in this regard is the tiger (Panthera tigris). The demand for traditional medicines in Asian countries, notably China, has led to what could eventually be the total extermination of tigers everywhere. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of China's 1.3 billion people still ascribe to the salubrious effects of tiger bone, bear gallbladder, rhinoceros horn, and dried gecko. What few Vietnamese tigers are left lurk in the Truong Son Mountains-perhaps on the lookout for that rare saola-and scattered other parcels of remote forest. The drastically reduced population of Vietnam's largest wild cat is, again, the result of deforestation, lack of prey, and overhunting by people to obtain putative medicines to sell in the booming Chinese market. By the early 1990s, procurement and sale of such remedies were a six-billion-dollar-a-year business. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an independent, international group, estimated that at least one tiger a day was being killed for Chinese medicine. Nearly half this trade came through Hong Kong; an estimated nineteen hundred kilograms of tiger bone, the equivalent of 400 to 500 tigers, were exported to Japan from Taiwanese waypoints in 1990. Other countries on the receiving end included the United States and Great Britain. One might suppose that a commodity this rare and tenuous is expensive, and it is. Only a few years ago tiger bone was fetching about $140 to $370 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), and a bowl of virility-inducing tigerpenis soup could be slurped for $320. This seems an outrageously low value for the devastation of a priceless species in the wild, especially in a world where cultivated renewable product, such as a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux wine, can command hundreds of dollars per liter.
To be sure, efforts have been made to stop the slaughter and plug the commerce. In recent years organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have stimulated wider concern about endangered species and spurred investigations of medicinal alternatives. Surveys in 2003 revealed that endangered species products showed a marked decrease in traditional Chinese medicine shops in North American cities. But Asia itself still represents the primary challenge. China has been a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1981, but for years it has failed to enforce any of its regulations, especially those pertaining to the importation of tiger parts from India and other countries. In 1999 China did respond to international appeals by passing a law prohibiting the killing of tigers and other endangered species for traditional medicines. Hunting of tigers in the wild is now also at least officially prohibited in all countries where they live.
In March 2006 a workshop in Beijing brought together practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with researchers, wildlife experts, and government officials to discuss the practices that are destroying Asia's own natural resources. The government has also committed research funds to identify medicinal alternatives. However, the funding levels are comparatively modest, considering the vast amounts of new money China has poured into scientific research and technological development, and it remains to be seen how effective China will be in enforcing its new law. There were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild less than a century ago. The 2006 Red List still categorizes Panthera tigris as endangered; recent studies estimate that there are fewer than 2,500 mature tigers today and no localized population with more than 250. Persistent demand for traditional medicines, fueled by increasing consumer wealth, encourages active, albeit now officially illegal, tiger trade. The threat of eventual extinction of this species in the wild is still with us.
On our return to Da Nang we stopped at another famous spot, China Beach, where U.S. officers used to take their R and R. I could see why. This long, beautiful beach made a graceful curve against a siege of waves feathered by a cool onshore breeze. It was like the beach in my hometown, SantaMonica, only with clearer water and an elegant grove of palm trees unbroken by hotels and other commercial buildings. Gary, Traung, and I joined some locals in downing a few more beers (this time Tigers). We then reluctantly joined our driver, appropriately deprived of alcoholic refreshment and waiting patiently in our van, for our return to the airport. By this time Traung was in not much shape to guide. He only said, "This has been one of the best days of my life." We agreed.
On the return flight to Hanoi, I thought of Traung's enthusiasm, fleeting tigers, snake wine, giant turtles, saola taxidermy, Dr. Hiep's cycads, the IEBR, and Vietnam's past and future. It seemed so odd to be immersed suddenly in a country that as a teenager I had sworn I would never go to, certainly not then for the purpose of killing and dying. But now Americans and Vietnamese were intimately connected in their work to initiate a healing process that celebrates Vietnam for its wondrous culture and art and to participate in a desperate effort to hold back the wave of another kind of destruction, euphemistically known as development, assaulting this beautiful country. And Vietnam was no different from, no more beautiful and no more vulnerable than, other places I had visited, no more than the green bamboo-clad hills of Sarawak, the thorn forests of Madagascar, or Lake Tana, with its waters of robin's-egg blue set against the scarred landscape of Ethiopia. Vietnam was another pitched battle in a campaign to stave off what, in moments of cynicism or despair, seemed inevitable.
 

 

Conservation efforts in the world today are broadly aimed. The targets are whole regions, landscapes, ecosystems, and numerous species. Yet people like to have symbols for motivation, touchstone species that seem to capture in one image both precious nature and the urgency to protect it. In this regard the saola of Vietnam and Laos is a very effective symbol. It is not only a cornered species, nearly gone before we even have gotten to know it, but a hanger-on from a lost world. This is not a sci-fi world of spewing volcanoes, tortuous vines, dinosaurs, and giant gorillas. It is instead a world whose forests extended uninterrupted from the sharp limestone mountains of the Indochina peninsula to the azure Pacific, a world without sprawling cities, motorbikes, rice fields, and scorched Earth, a world full of animals like the saola that we shall never have the pleasure and the honor of seeing alive. Twelve thousand years ago much of this part of Asia-indeed, much of the world-was inhabited by dramatic, big, and strange beasts. Fossil deposits are the only evidence we have that these spectacular big mammals were spread all over the world. Today only in Africa do they persist in such great variety.
It is important to recognize as well that the saola is not the only symbol of this lost world. Vietnam has an arresting number of unique species, what in science we call endemic species, species found nowhere else but in a single region, sometimes a single valley or a single stream. Other Vietnam endemics include some of its orchids and cycads, the warty pig (now likely extinct), three species of primates, and several barking deer, known for their diverting vocalizations that emanate from the forest primeval. Why this plenitude of endemics? To try to answer, we must consider not only the impact of humans on wildlife but also the effects of climate change. One cascade effect from climate change is particularly profound in the tropics. A warming trend at the end of the last glaciation some twelve thousand years ago caused sea levels to rise 125 meters (410 feet). Coastlines and lowland areas all over the world were affected, but flooding of the land and disruption of the biota were most pronounced in the extensive lowland areas, notably in the tropics and more specifically the tropics of southeastern Asia. By eight thousand years ago more than half the land areas supporting lowland tropical forests during the earlier phase of glaciation, with its lower sea level, had been entirely flooded. On the mainland, animals and plants migrated to mountainous regions, such as the Truong Son, above the flooded plain. Former coastal areas, peninsulas, and land bridges became small islands, little emergent arks stuffed with surviving species. This is why many of these refugia have remarkable and unexpected concentrations of large animals, including orangutans, tigers, banteng cattle, gibbons, and hornbills, as well as saolas and barking deer.
What else once lived on the lands now submerged? The fossil record in the tropics is poor, and we do not have a very good idea about what was lost, but there is a basis for an educated guess. Simple application of some classic ecological principles offered by Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson suggest that this much land loss meant at least a 10 percent loss in species through extinction. Moreover, because of the confined land areas, surviving populations have probably declined from their former supersaturated levels, and many of them are in a precarious state. Tigers are threatened throughout their entire range, but perhaps most endangered on Indonesian and other islands that are the remnants of once extensive habitat.
Another aspect of the shifts in the tropical land biota twelve millennia ago warrants mention. Mammals bigger than fifty kilograms (110 pounds) living in tropical forests, especially in South and Central America, suddenly disappeared. Of the bulky, browsing herbivores, only the tapir remains, in these New World forests, as an important agent in spreading seeds of large trees and other plants through its feces. This disappearance of massive herbivores was likely due to a combination of climate and human hunting, and it unquestionably had a serious impact on the regrowth of plants in many areas. Recent studies of the Amazonian ecosystem show that the fluctuating abundance of even somewhat smaller mammals, such as the white-lipped peccary, is directly linked to the propagation of seedlings of common trees.
The big mammals of ten to twelve millennia ago were victims of extinction events ascribed to various causes: climate, competition from invading animals, disease transmission from early humans or their domesticated animals, and intensive hunting pressures from those same humans. The last of these, the overkill theory, is currently the explanation that scientists most widely accept. Nonetheless, some reject it and note that the extinction of large animals has not been as marked in historical times as in prehistoric times, despite the great surge in human populations, habitat destruction, hunting technology, need, and motivation.
But this argument is actually blind to the real situation. Extermination of large mammals in recent centuries has been much more intensive than for mammals in general. Five species of large hoofed mammals have gone extinct in just the last five hundred years: the Arabian gazelle, red gazelle, bluebuck, and two species of hippopotamus from Madagascar. Several other species have gone extinct in the wild, though in some cases they have been restored through captive breeding and reintroduction programs: Prze-walski's wild horse from Central Asia, Père David's deer, the Saudi gazelle, the black wildebeest, and the Arabian oryx. One might also include on that list two species of bison, given their dismal history of virtual extinction in the wild. Moreover, several large species would surely have suffered extinction without the protective measures taken just in recent decades: all five barely surviving species of rhinoceros, the mountain zebra, several species of the ass, and many of the ruminants, cud-chewing artiodactyls, such as the camels.
The litany of extinct, nearly extinct, or seriously endangered large land mammals is hardly a full measure of the historical destruction of the biota, of course. In this book I focus on the traumatic evolution of life on terrafirma, but it would be irresponsible not to mention that large animals of the oceans have been harvested to extinction, or nearly so, in recent centuries. One of the most arresting examples is the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), animals that glide from sea to land and back, swimming the warm waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Caribbean and alighting onshore to lay their eggs. In past times these animals were so plentiful that they sometimes served as a shore themselves; lithographs from the seventeenth century show sailors disembarking from their ships and walking to the beach of a Caribbean island on the backs of turtles. The subsequent demise of the green turtle is a tale of spectacular devastation. When Europeans first arrived in the Caribbean, they encountered an astounding number of green turtles-historical records suggest an estimated 33 million adults. That number was reduced thirtyfold, to about 1 million, largely the result of overfishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Exploitation continued worldwide-large populations of green turtles were exterminated in Australia's Moreton Bay in the early twentieth century-but these later events merely built on a long history of massive overfishing. The largest nest sites today are in Costa Rica (twenty-two thousand females) and on Raine Island in the Great Barrier Reef (eighteen thousand females). The IUCN's 2006 Red List notes that thirty-two index sites worldwide have shown a 48 to 65 percent decline in mature nesting females over the past 100 to 150 years. Destruction of populations is not confined to this species of marine turtle. The once abundant Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) is now also on the IUCN endangered list.
Moving farther offshore, we are familiar with the continuing decline of the great whales, a trend only arrested somewhat in recent years by international law and enforcement. Some whales, like the gray whale, are now on a population rebound, but others, like the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), are hardly in a state of security. A recent sighting and photograph of a solitary right whale with her newborn calf were front-page news and a cause for celebration worldwide. The mixed success in saving the whales notwithstanding, we continue to devastate marine life for sustenance. In the process we are drastically denuding an impressive list of creatures: sharks, swordfish, Chilean sea bass, North Atlantic cod, several strains of salmon, lobster, and many others. At a conference at the American Museum of Natural History held in 2002 that dealt with this sober subject, Daniel Pauly, a well-known fisheries scientist, predicted, "We'll soon be eating jellyfish," a less than delectable marine creature with virtually no nutritive value. Some of Japan's fish markets have recently issued a demand for same.
Of course these are only the most recent waves of decimation in the history of life. Major biological catastrophes punctuate the history recorded in the abundant fossils we have extending back over 500 million years, and it is likely that extinction events also marked the shadowy history of life on Earth all the way back to its beginning 3.5 billion years ago. Across this vast expanse of time, multitudinous species have originated, persisted, died out, and been replaced by new species, a turnover that occurs at various rates whether or not mass extinction events occur. In this way, species, like individuals, are mortal: they have given life spans. Extinction is a way of life. The result? Most of life on Earth belongs to a lost world. There are 1.75 million living species already named and registered, and 10 to 20 million or more living species yet to be discovered, but 99.999 percent of all life that ever existed is extinct.
Fortunately, the extinct species representing those early lost worlds are not totally lost. The fossil record outlines at least the history of life, and we can appreciate its profound impact on the world today. In addition to the continual churning and overturning of elements in the biota, marked bythe extinction of old species and their replacement by new ones, paleontologists have identified five major, or mass, extinction events over the past 500 million years. Yet most of these catastrophes of the distant past are mysterious, their causes ill understood. When we move closer to the present, things become clearer. As we shall see, we have good evidence that 65 million years ago many organisms, including all dinosaurs except birds, were wiped out when a piece of rock as big as Mount Everest collided with Earth near what is now the southeastern coast of Mexico. And then, as I have noted, we have vivid evidence-despite some skeptical reaction to it at first-that between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago colonizing, predatory humans were in many places the principal force behind the extermination of large animal species. The human factor becomes very clear in historical times. Thus the cause of the current biodiversity crisis-what many scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction-is disturbingly clear.
We are beginning to learn that all mass extinction events have similar effects regardless of their causes, whether human intervention or asteroid overkill. The recovery of resilient organisms and ecosystems shows a particular pattern and particular tempo, and we know that what eventually recovers is never exactly what once had been. Studying these patterns helps us assess the nature of our own current life crisis and its likely outcomes. As we look to the future of life on Earth, we must keep looking back. The fossil record-beyond all the theory, sophisticated ecological modeling, and prognostication about the anticipated state of the world and its biota-is the only direct evidence we have for what actually happened.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Novacek

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Table of Contents


Prologue: The Hyena     ix
The Way of the World
A Creature in the Forest     3
Lush Life     22
Ephemeral Life     41
Elephants, Dung Beetles, and Ecosystems     53
Evolution - Life Through a New Lens     75
The World Becomes Modern
Ancient Ground     95
Imperial Collapse     112
The Dinosaurs of Middle Earth     127
A Flower in the Forest     140
The Garden of Delights     155
Toward a New Ecosystem     172
Dinosaur Camelot     180
Death and Resurrection
A Puzzling Catastrophe     197
The Era After     217
Terra Humana
Who They Were     235
The Exterminators     246
The Cultivators     254
Land Rush     266
Dark Forces     279
The Waste of a World     295
Heat Wave     308
Future World     338
Notes and References     357
Acknowledgments     427
Index     429
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