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ALL THINGS GREAT AND TALL
How the World's Biggest LifeForms Are Saving Human Lives
Mago National Park is an astoundingly beautiful place, where morning fog gives way to spectacular vistas, and acacia trees are playgrounds for birds and baboons, the occasional python, and a small group of park rangers who have, in recent years, been losing a war against elephant poachers in southwest Ethiopia.
In the fall of 2017 Mago's game warden, who had asked park rangers for a census of the elephants in the park, invited me to join a foot patrol with a ranger named Kere Ayke, a member of the Kara tribe of the South Omo River Valley. Our hike began before dawn at a campsite along a rapid, muddy river, and twined through the mountains and valleys of the northeast quadrant of the park. But even before we'd left, Ayke was laughing off the task as rather pointless.
"There are elephants," he told me as we waded through the thick and thorny bush. "We know because we still see their tracks sometimes. But we haven't seen them in years. None of us have."
Sure enough, on that day we saw kudu, waterbuck, dik-dik, baboons, and guinea fowl. At one point something big and dark and gray seemed to slink into the bush 100 yards ahead of us or so, causing the treetops to tremble, but by the time we caught up it was gone, a ghost in the forest. We walked for miles, then miles more, on a route where the world's largest animals used to roam freely, and saw nothing more than trampled grass and hubcap-sized holes in the mud.
There are places in this world — some not far south from Mago even — in which elephants live in relative safety and where their numbers are stable or even growing. But that isn't the case in South Omo.
"The ones who are left, the survivors, are hiding," Ayke said. "They are terrified."
Back at the ranger station, conservation officer Demelash Delelegn told me why. Pulling an old ledger from the drawer of his rickety desk, and opening its yellowing pages to a hand-drawn spreadsheet, Delelegn released a sigh that seemed much too big for his slight frame.
"This is my very own handwriting from 1997," he said. "You see here? We found almost 200 elephants in Mago then."
That's how many they physically saw, Delelegn told me. Working from those numbers, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society estimated there could have been as many as 575 elephants in Mago at that time. By 2014 the estimated number, based on new surveys, had fallen to about 170. Still, Delelegn said, even a population that small, if properly protected, could grow.
"But it wasn't protected," he said. "We didn't do anything at all."
"So how many are there now?" I asked.
Delelegn's head dropped. "Not many," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "Not many at all."
He couldn't bring himself to even hazard a guess at a specific number. It was just too hard.
Outside his office, over a game of bottlecap checkers, I asked Ayke and his fellow scouts how many elephants they thought the most recent census would find.
"Maybe fifteen?" Ayke guessed. The other scouts nodded.
"There were 170 just a few years ago and now there are fifteen?" They nodded again.
Mago is surrounded on all sides by tribes including the Kara, Hamar, Mursi, and Ari. The warriors from these tribes have always hunted elephants, though not in tremendous numbers. One elephant goes a long way, after all.
But when the government sold off tribal lands and permitted foreign investors to open factories in the region, some members of the tribes rebelled by doing something they'd been told they were no longer allowed to do: They began killing more elephants, trading the ivory for cash and guns.
Delelegn was surprisingly sympathetic. The scouts with whom he works are all drawn from the surrounding tribes. He said the government came and made demands of the tribes and didn't think of "how to talk to them in right and respectful ways."
The scouts are helpless to protect the animals. "We have forty-two people to patrol this entire park, which is more than 2,000 square kilometers," Delelegn said. "We don't have any trucks. We have very few guns. We have no education or training for this."
None of this came as a surprise to Nisha Owen, the manager of the Zoological Society of London's EDGE species program. There aren't enough game officers in the world to defend the species that need defending, she said. "Ultimately, protecting animals comes down to communicating with people," she said. "If we do it right we can have a tremendous positive impact, but if we do it wrong we can make things worse."
To do it right, though, requires understanding. And we got a very late start on that. It wasn't until 1977, in fact, that anyone thought to bring together a society of researchers around the scientific exploration of African and Asian elephants.
A review of that community's work, in the first edition of the journal Elephant, shows just how poorly developed the field was in the 1970s. One zoo reported to the society that it was interested in the interbreeding of two separate species, an African bull and Asian cow — a futile biological enterprise and, today, a conservation anathema. A list of "selected recent literature" included references to some more sophisticated scientific explorations, but even that list was thematically dominated by questions related to basic attributes, such as how long elephants live, how much they eat, and where they dwell — all things scientists could have explored decades or even hundreds of years earlier.
Fifteen years after the journal was born, its editor, biologist Jeheskel Shoshani, was still lamenting just how much very basic information we had yet to gather about elephants. "We have just begun to understand elephant behavior and its role in the ecosystem," he wrote in Elephants: Majestic Creatures of the Wild, a thoughtful examination of the social, economic, and ecological roles of the world's largest land animal.
Writing in the foreword to the book, the eminent zoologist Richard Laws marveled at a then-recent finding that elephants communicate over long distances by ultra-low frequencies called infrasound.
It's not that such a discovery couldn't have been made during those years; infrasound had, at that point, been detectable by human instrumentation for seventy-five years. But previously, no one had thought to even try. "There is no doubt," Laws added, "that there are further significant discoveries to be made."
Once we really started studying elephants, something became very clear: That was an understatement of gargantuan proportions.
HOW ELEPHANTS ARE LIKE MARTIAL ARTISTS
The African elephant is not so much an outlier as an outcome.
The largest living land mammal could be the poster creature for something called Cope's Rule. That nineteenth-century postulate, named for paleontologist Edward Cope, suggests animals in a lineage tend to get bigger over time.
From a long-term perspective, that's obvious. When life first appeared on this planet, some 4 billion years ago, it arrived in the form of single-celled organisms. By about 230 million years ago, those tiny creatures had evolved into dinosaurs, which ruled the planet for 165 million years to come, gradually getting bigger and bigger until ...
... BOOM ...
... an asteroid delivered a calamitous do-over, leaving very few large creatures on our planet's surface. The survivors were generally smaller burrowers that were able to wait out the upheaval. And, with those little animals as a launching point, Mother Nature started over again, rebuilding her creations, bigger and bigger with each passing millennium. Today our planet is once again walked upon by monsters. Giraffes and rhinoceroses. Hippopotamuses and elephants.
Cope's Rule isn't perfect. And within the vast fossil record it is certainly not hard to identify lineages that have reversed course in response to the conditions of the times and places in which they have lived. Over time, however, animals that don't die out tend to chunk up again. In this way, plotting the Cope effect would generally give us a chart that looks less like a straight line than an inverted roller coaster — up and down and up and down, but ever more up over time.
Like humans and every other placental mammal, elephants likely evolved from a furry-tailed, insect-eating, rat-sized animal resembling a long-nosed shrew and weighing in at about 8 ounces. The following epochs gave us the 35-pound phosphatherium, which looked like a cross between a gerbil and a hippo. Later there was the 1,000-pound phiomia, which had a jutting jaw and thus looked more like a cross between an elephant and Jay Leno. Later still there was the 4,000-pound palaeomastodon, which looked like a modern elephant, but with a shorter trunk and tusks at all four corners of its mouth.
All of these creatures appear to be part of the lineage that gave us today's African bush elephant, the largest animal to roam the surface of our planet since the dinosaurs left Earth about 65 million years ago. (The largest of the mammoths rivaled their modern cousins in height, but likely fell short of the 15,000-pound weight of the largest African bush bulls.) Among an estimated 6.5 million other terrestrial species on our planet, and the hundreds of millions of creatures that have lived on the Earth's surface since the last major extinction, the elephant is truly a fantastic beast.
The Darwinian explanation for how tiny animals turn into giant ones over time is fairly commonsensical; it is natural selection at work. Mutations producing a little more size and strength result in individuals better adapted to competing for mates, winning the battle for food, and fighting off predators.
But perhaps the single biggest driver of Cope's Rule is something so obvious it's often overlooked. As evolutionary biologist John Bonner once explained to me, "there's always room at the top." Smaller animals, he pointed out, must compete with a lot of other animals in a similar niche. But once an animal finds itself at the top of the heap within its biome, Bonner said, "they escape the competition." Thus, over time, a lot of animals get bigger.
And not just bigger, but different. For as a creature grows, the universal laws governing matter and energy begin to push and pull upon the forces that maintain life. In his book Why Size Matters, Bonner argues size is the driving force for all of biology, including evolution. It's why elephants look like elephants, rather than really big versions of our common ancestor. They didn't grow bigger because mutations like long snouts made them more fit, Bonner argues. Rather, such mutations were needed to accommodate their growth.
To explain how this works, Bonner likes to invoke the Brobdingnagians of Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (which you likely know as Gulliver's Travels). Like Swift's Lilliputians, who looked precisely like humans but were much smaller, the Brobdingnagians are described as looking just like humans, but standing twelve times taller than we are, or nearly 70 feet tall. But a creature that tall poses a problem of physics, because an increase in height would correspond to an increase in width, which would correspond to an increase in depth. And the area within those dimensions, filled to the brim with tissue and bone, Bonner estimates, would weigh something on the order of 12 or 13 tons.
Supporting that weight wouldn't be possible on legs simply scaled up from human dimensions. To have any hope of walking, the Brobdingnagians would have to have greatly thickened lower limbs, which Bonner says would give them the appearance of being "victims of advanced elephantiasis of the legs." It's not just that they wouldn't look human — they couldn't look human.
Elephants don't simply offer us an opportunity to understand the colluding forces of physics and evolution, though. They also have much to teach us when it comes to survival. Because even though they have a lot going for them in that respect, as the most extreme land-dwelling example of Cope's Rule, they also have a lot going against them.
While evolution seems to drive many creatures, and particularly mammals, to get bigger over time, it also eventually blows the biggest animals off the extinctionary edge — a phenomenon I've come to think of as "Cope's Cliff." Bigger animals take a lot more food and water to survive from day to day, and are thus more prone to starvation in times of scarcity. They have longer gestation periods and tend to birth single offspring at a time, meaning they don't replace themselves, let alone grow their numbers, as quickly as smaller animals. As a result, they can't evolve as quickly in response to changing climates.
It is for reasons like these that we are no longer sharing the Earth with animals like Castoroides, a genus of goliath prehistoric beavers that could reach 7 feet long and weighed more than 250 pounds. Castoroides likely bowed out of existence around 11,000 years ago, along with the genera Glyptodon, an armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and Megalonyx, a 10-foot-tall sloth. Ahead of all of those genera on the great and lethal leap off Cope's Cliff was the real Bigfoot — Gigantopithecus, a 10-foot and 1,000-pound fruit-eating ape that lived in what is now southern China.
All huge. All gone now.
So bigger is better — until it isn't. That's what makes the world's largest land animal so special. Elephants have managed to survive both because of and despite their size. Somehow, they've successfully balanced upon an evolutionary tightrope strung between their sheer enormity and pressures like cataclysmic environmental changes, hungry predators, and the necessity to evolve. Having come to the precarious edge of Cope's Cliff, they've almost miraculously managed to keep from falling off.
And although elephants are the largest of all extant land animals, every life-form having achieved superlative size among its own lineage has walked a similarly incredible evolutionary path. Giraffes. Giant redwoods. Blue whales. These organisms are evolutionary jujitsu masters — the perfect combination of strength, balance, and fitness. Their size is a clue to us that they have tremendous knowledge to impart about surviving in this world, if we'd only just be willing to study at their enormous feet.
WHY ELEPHANT CELLS ARE LIKE EMPATHETIC ZOMBIES
At first phenotypic blush, my friend Zuri and I don't seem much alike. She has a trunk and I've got thumbs. She has crackly gray hide and I've got freckled peach skin. She can communicate over long distances via low-pitched rumbles detectable by vibrations in her trunk and feet, and I've got text messaging, email, and Twitter. And, not for nothing, there's the whole size thing: She weighed far more as a 251-pound infant than I've ever weighed as an adult.
Physiologically speaking, it might appear as though you couldn't find another mammal more different from Homo sapiens than Loxodonta africana.
But there's also a tremendous amount of common ground. Both of our species live unusually long lives for mammals — decades after our last reproduction, a point at which a lot of other animals tend to knock off. We're both social creatures who live in highly complex communities. We both have relatively big brains, even when adjusted for body size.
And in our genomes? There's a lot of overlap. About three-quarters of elephant genes have human analogs — and hidden inside all of that shared genetic material is potential for deep understanding.
The genetic coding we share with elephants has been stressed and stretched in all sorts of different ways since our species diverged, but vast sequences in our DNA still perform markedly similar functions. So when we see something an elephant is doing with its genome, it's not beyond reason that — given the right circumstances — we could do it with ours, too.
One example of this came by way of the legendary biological anthropologist Morris Goodman, a pioneer in the use of DNA to chart the course of evolution. Goodman wanted to know whether the human solution to addressing the needs of big, oxygen-ravenous brains was, in fact, uniquely human at all. After sorting through the genomes of fifteen animals, all of which diverged from one another at vastly different times in the past 310 million years, Goodman realized humans and elephants had both undergone an accelerated period of evolution in our "aerobic energy metabolism" genes, which impact how our mitochondria use oxygen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Superlative"
Copyright © 2019 Matthew D. LaPlante.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContentsIntroductionNature’s Best AmbassadorsChapter IAll Things Great and Tall: How the World’s Biggest Life-Forms Are Saving Human LivesChapter IIAll the Small Things: Why Little Organisms Have Such a Big Impact on Our WorldChapter IIIThe Old Dominion: How Our Biological Elders are Offering Us New KnowledgeChapter IVFast Times: Why the Quickest Animals Probably Aren’t the Ones You ThinkChapter VAural Sects: How Superlative Sound Drives Life as We Know ItChapter VIThe Tough Get Going: How the World’s Strongest Organisms Might Lift Us to the HeavensChapter VIIDeadly Serious: Why the World’s Most Efficient Killers Are Such Effective LifesaversChapter VIIISmarter All the Time: Why the Most Intelligent Life-Forms Ain’t UsConclusionThe Next Superlative Discovery Is YoursAcknowledgmentsNotesAbout the Author
What People are Saying About This
"The interesting stories and anecdotes provided here by focusing on the extremes, which are unquestionably interesting, may serve another purpose: they pique the curiosity of readers who may not have fancied themselves interested in science. " —CHOICE"LaPlante writes with zeal—be sure to read his endnotes!—and engages the reader in the wonder and thrill of scientific discovery."—Booklist “In Superlative, Matthew LaPlante takes us on a whiplash-paced journey around the globe to visit the biggest, smallest, quickest, slowest, and smartest creatures out there. In a string of short colorful vignettes, LaPlante explores a medley of superlative creatures one at a time, intertwining science and natural history with spirited storytelling and genuine affection. In the end, we learn that what makes each of these creatures superlative also makes them uniquely valuable—to their ecosystems, to science, and also to us.”—Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth “Matthew D. LaPlante is a rising star. In his new book, Superlative, he travels to the ends of the Earth to find the smallest, hardiest, most unusual organisms, and the interesting people who study them. As a professor of biology, I was shocked there was still so much I did not know about our brethren at the extremes. Hail evolution.”—David A. Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School “This is one of those rare books that you want to show people while going, ‘Look at what it says here, did you know that?’ LaPlante writes in an engaging and clear style that perfectly communicates his delight for nature’s creativity while simultaneously lamenting the tragedy of extinction . . . Superlative should not only be in the library of any science enthusiast, but it should also be required reading for high school students and beginning college students.”—Oné R. Pagán, PhD, professor of biology at West Chester University, and author of Strange Survivors“Superlative displays a key scientific insight: It’s the exceptions, the unusual, and the extremes that teach us the most. Matthew LaPlante’s exploration of these exceptions is timely, fascinating, and exciting, giving us a chance to see what the future may—quite unexpectedly—offer us.”—Michael Fossel, author of The Telomerase Revolution