Wednesday, October 14, 2009

MPAs Work

A long overdue message from Pierce Brosnan and friends:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Elk Rut

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Last weekend I had the wonderful opportunity of camping and filming within Rocky Mountain National Park during the elk rut. Here is a small teaser of the footage - more to come!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An After Work Hike

Soberanes Canyon Trail, Garrapata State Park, California.  Location of trailhead: Latitude 36.4387, Longitude -121.9203

The signs at the trailheads in this region warn of mountain lions, rattlesnakes and poison oak.  I seem to be impervious to the latter and am only exhilarated by the possibility of seeing the first two.  I consider these types of signs to be more about the “best stuff to see” as opposed to any message of caution I should heed.  A few years back, while hiking at Kenai Glacier in Alaska, I was amazed and amused by the bear warning signs posted by the National Park Service.  Apparently, if at any times a bear “begins to feed on you”, you should “fight back”.  Brilliant!    To be fair though, the rest of the sign did give some pretty good advice as well as helpful information on the behavioral differences between black and brown bears.  

Now, on the trails here in Central California,  I did end up seeing one of those rattlesnakes.  It was this past Easter, while on a hike through Garland Ranch Regional Park, in Carmel Valley.  It was a small guy, for sure, but my very first rattler, so I was thrilled.  Today, on the other hand, I had no such luck, but nonetheless was not left disappointed.

After leaving work at 5pm in Monterey, I headed down the PCH past Carmel Heights to a beautiful ocean overlook where the trailhead for Soberanes Canyon Trail begins.  You enter Garrapata State Park as soon as you walk off the road, but this is evident only from a single sign post – there are no facilities or elaborate trail markers here.  The trail winds up the canyon, following a stream along the way and , at this time of day, the air was buzzing with damselflies and stellar jays.  After briefly passing through oak chaparral, the canyon winds through a valley of prickly pear cactus, through some riparian vegetation and then empties into a magnificent redwood forest a la the moon of Endor (minus any signs of Ewoks).  

After spending some time among the redwoods, billows of fog began to roll in and the sky darkened with the approaching dusk.  I had a mind to turn around, but noted that a few couples that passed me by while I stopped for photos had not come back this way.  So, I guessed a loop trail and moved onward.  I was greatly rewarded, as the best was yet to come.  The trail eventually rises up from the redwood forest and onto the grassy slopes above tree line.  From this vantage point, one can see how the redwood groves line the interiors of narrow canyons, and then quickly fade off as the slopes open up.   The trail here rises high into the Santa Lucia Mountains, the slopes of which are alive with wildflowers at this time of the year.  California poppies, composites and lupines were a few I recognized, but my recollection does not do them justice.  It is a orgy of color up there and, as one climbs higher, a spectacular vista of the sea opens behind you, making the Pacific look like nothing more than a great, glassy pond. 

Continuing upward, I feared that I had chosen wrongly as dusk settled deep on the backside of the mountain.  But as I neared the summit, a still late afternoon sun greeted me, illuminating the rocky outcrops and flowered slopes in bright gold, scattered almost mystically through patches of fog.   Although far above the sea now, the bellows of sea lions could yet be heard, their raucous barking radiating from an offshore pair of islets.  I encountered a rabbit, a black-tailed deer and numerous western fence lizards. 

The descent is on the front side of the mountain, exposed to the sun and ocean, so barren of trees.  In one obscure spot, a carved bench sits on an outcropping.  Through a friend I heard that on one night of every week, hikers meet here with bottles of wine to watch the sun go down.   I had no wine, but the sun did set for me as I descended back down to the road.    Funny, I kind of regret not having been caught up there past dark - I’d love to still be roaming those hills.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Great White Shark Song

Monterey, California.  This one's just for fun.  This video is a bit dated now, but I just love the song and thought I'd share a little shark good will with you today.  Avoid that shark fin soup at all costs!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scientists urge world leaders to respond cooperatively to Pacific Ocean threats

Monterey, California More than 400 leading scientists from nearly two-dozen countries have signed a consensus statement on the major threats facing the Pacific Ocean. The threats identified as the most serious and pervasive include overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.

“This is first time the scientific community has come together in a single voice to express urgency over the environmental crisis facing the Pacific Ocean,” said Meg Caldwell, executive director of the Center for Ocean Solutions, who will present the statement on Wednesday, May 13 at 6:30 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time to government officials gathered at the World Ocean Conference in Manado, Indonesia. “The scientific community urges governments to respond now, cooperatively, to these threats before their impacts accelerate beyond our ability to respond.”

The consensus statement, entitled “Ecosystems and People of the Pacific Ocean: Threats and Opportunities for Action,” emerged from a scientific workshop in Honolulu hosted by the Center for Ocean Solutions in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Ocean Conservancy. The workshop was part of a broader
 effort by the three organizations to challenge countries throughout the Pacific region to improve the health of marine ecosystems by 2020.

In the consensus statement, the scientists warn that if left unchecked, the cumulative impacts
of overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction—exacerbated by climate change—could have
devastating consequences for coastal economies, food supplies, public health and political stability.

These threats affect all members of the Pacific Ocean community, said Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and one of the principal organizers of the consensus statement. “Remarkable similarity exists between the major problems experienced in poor and rich countries alike, in populous nations and on small islands,” said Palumbi, a professor of biology and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

In addition to listing the serious environmental challenges facing the Pacific Ocean, the consensus statement also highlighted a set of potential solutions now being applied and tested at various scales throughout the region. Examples include the establishment of marine protected areas and the creation of economic incentives for activities that promote rather than degrade ecosystem health. “These efforts have shown remarkable success at local scales in maintaining biological and human economic diversity, particularly when applied with adequate levels of regulation and enforcement in place,” said Caldwell, a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School and at the Woods Institute. “These solutions are indicators of hope within an ocean of distress.”

The consensus statement was largely based on a synthesis of more than 3,400 scientific papers on the threats and impacts to the Pacific prepared by the Center for Ocean Solutions. The Pacific Ocean Synthesis provides “a roadmap by which governments might chart a new course of policy for the Pacific region,” said Biliana Cicin-Sain, a professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware and coordinator of the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands, a multi-stakeholder network committed to advancing ocean issues within international agreements.

“The impacts of misuse of our ocean resources on our economy, our environment and our community can no longer be ignored,” said Gov. Sinyo Harry Sarundajang of the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, whose capital Manado is hosting the World Ocean Conference. The governor will convene the event with Caldwell on Wednesday. “We must work together at the regional and transboundary levels to find solutions for improved management of our common ocean.”

The scientific consensus statement and synthesis can be found at the Center for Ocean Solutions website. Scientists interested in signing the consensus statement can send an email to

Based in Monterey, Calif., the Center for Ocean Solutions is a collaboration of three leading marine science and policy institutions—Stanford University (through its Woods Institute for the Environment and Hopkins Marine Station), the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). The center focuses on finding practical, enduring solutions to major challenges facing the oceans.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Catch National Geographic's Megabeasts!

Monterey, California.  The National Geographic Channel has yet another great program exploring our missing wilderness.  Death of the Megabeasts explores the disappearance of giant beasts that roamed our planet long after the fall of the dinosaurs.  Scientists look at a number of theories on why these animals disappeared, including the likely possibility that we ate them!  The show next airs on May 3rd at noon.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The History of Mammoths

Monterey, California.  National Geographic reports that the first written reference to mammoths is in the Shên I King, a book by Tang-fang So, a minister of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who ruled China from 140 to 87 BCE. He wrote of the k'i shu, a gigantic, rodent-like creature that lived beneath the ice of the frozen north: “Its flesh weighs a thousand pounds and may be used as dried meat for food… its hair is about eight feet in length, and is made into rugs, which are used as bedding and to keep out the cold. The hide of the animal yields a covering for drums, the sound of which is audible over a distance of a thousand miles.” Eating mammoth flesh, he noted, was believed to be a remedy for fevers.

Check out this recreation of mammoth life from the National Geographic Channel:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bad Shrimp, Bad!

Did you know that shrimp are the #1 bad seafood choice in terms of environmental impact?  The good people at are concerned you might not.  In response, they are running the first Viral Video Contest

Tell them why "shrimp suck" in a video of up to one minute in length and win a Flip Video camera.

Post your video by June 1st, 2009. Awards will be announced to the world on World Ocean Day '09...June 8th.

The research is clear, bottom trawling for shrimp and most shrimp farming is about as bad for the ocean as a human activity can get.  In some places there's 20 pounds of bycatch (animals like sea turtles, young sharks, fish, and crabs) for every pound of shrimp caught.
 Many shrimp farms are created by destroying mangrove forests and wetlands (pictured). But even most eco-minded people still have no idea how bad shrimp are for our coasts and oceans. Meanwhile, shrimp remain the number one seafood in the US, and their price comes nowhere close to reflecting their true cost.

Upload your video of one minute or less in length to YouTube, add keyword "" so ShrimpSuck.Org can find it, and send an email with your video's URL to:

There will be awards for best, funniest and most viewed videos,reviewed by our expert panel of judges.

Get creative and tell why you don't eat shrimp, show why shrimp suck or share ideas about the best alternatives. 

And share the email and your soon-to-be-award-winning video with everyone you know who cares about the ocean.

Photo credits: Ecuadorian shrimp farm (Arlo Hemphill), Shrimp bycatch (NOAA)

Monday, March 16, 2009

To Sea Patagonia

Melbourne, Florida. The Patagonia Sea (southwestern Atlantic), is one of the most spectacular marine ecoregions on the planet. What it lacks in biodiversity, it more than makes up for 
in productivity and immense aggregations of marine wildlife.  Elephant seals, penguins, sea lions, whales and other megafauna congregate in mass in what can only be referred to as wildlife spectacles.  But like many parts of the ocean today, this sea is in trouble.  Overfishing, harmful fishing practices, pollution and inadequate management measures threaten this unique area, much of which is still poorly understood.

As a means to raise awareness on and document the conservation status of the Patagonian Sea coast, I am proposing an expedition to traverse Argentina’s coastline from north to south by non-motorized means.

  Traveling by kayak and foot (and possibly to a limited extent horseback, bicycle and sail), I plan take photographs, video, interviews and collect scientific data on water quality and biodiversity along the way.  My proposed starting point for this journey will be the magnificent Iguaçu Falls at the intersect of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.  From there, I will work my way by kayak down the Rio Paraná, important in terms of its role as the major source of freshwater discharge into the Patagonian Sea.

  Upon reaching the Rio de la Plata, I will then set out by foot, from Buenos to Tierra del Fuego.  And this journey is intended to be shared with you. As often as possible, I will upload blog/vlog posts here at Walk on the Wild Side.  This will be the first stage of a dream to transform this blog from sideline reporting on wilderness news, to an actual day to day account of walking through the wild.

You can help make this dream a reality by voting online for Patagonia See at the Name Your Dream Assignment contest! Additionally, the expedition is in need of all kinds of support ranging from in-kind donations of website construction, to field gear, to actual monetary donations that will support the travel, science and subsistence costs.  Please feel free to direct any inquiries or offers of support or collaboration to me, Arlo Hemphill:

The impetus behind this adventure stems from my belief that our oceans are in dire trouble.  One means to combat this crisis is to address human activities on the ocean at the scale of large marine ecosystems, of which the Patagonian Sea represents a distinct unit.

  But this adventure is also the culmination of a passion that was instilled in me for the wildlife and landscape of Patagonia.  I first visited the region in early 2005 when, as a marine program manager for Conservation International, I was invited down to explore some of the wild coastline.  It was love at first sight.  And my first visit shortly turned into a regular relationship as a steering committee member on the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonia Sea and Areas of Influence.  The pictures of me included with this post are from that time. 

One of my fondest adventures in the region was with Dr. Claudio Campagna, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Sea and Sky Program.  I joined Claudio on the Peninsula Valdes and with him had the opportunity to track down a tagged southern elephant seal Mirounga leonina using radio telemetry.  The young seal in question also wore a satellite tag and our quest was to remove this tag to access the invaluable oceanographic data collected over a season at sea.  In the picture above the young female is temporarily incapacitated after being tranquilized for the removal of the device.  The photo here to the right was taken on one of Patagonia’s Estancias, which are large shepherding ranches.

The animal in my company is a young guanaco Lama guanicoe, one of South America’s four species of camel.  This particular individual was semi-domesticated, living in association with the Estancia. However, these animals range wild throughout this landscape and are bountiful.

Looking ahead, I see the most challenging portion of this trek to be the lower third of the Argentine coast.  It is a wild, harsh landscape with low human population density and miles upon miles of trackless, near-desert wilderness.  It is this, and the unknown that lies therein, that draws me more than anything.  I appreciate your help in moving this adventure forward and I look forward to sharing this time with you through this blog.

Photo Credits: Arlo and elephant seal (Natalia Machain), Maps of Argentina (Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of, MSN Encarta), Iguaçu Falls (Wikipidia), Arlo and guanaco (Rodolfo "Bubu" Werner)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Florida Elephants

Melbourne, Florida. It's been only a few weeks since I made the post on the concept of a Pleistocene Park in Florida. So, you can imagine what a thrill it is to learn that this may become a partial reality! Don't get me wrong, there are no plans to reassemble the montage of genetically-similar animals that existed in Florida's pre-history as proposed in my post. However, there is a plan underway to provide habitat for one of the most ecologically important, not to mention biggest of those beasts!

Waste Management has agreed to provide 300 acres of property in Okeechobee, Florida to The National Elephant Center. The site will house a state of the art conservation and research facility, acting as both a refuge for captive elephants in the U.S. and an epicenter for elephant science and conservation. The facility intends to house both African Loxodonta spp. and Asian elephants Elephas maximus. It will include open space for the elephants to roam and explore while providing a variety of natural waterholes for wallowing.

Now, just throw in a few lions, wild horses, capybara and South American camelids and rewilding Florida will be in business!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Big Fish, Little Fish

Melbourne, Florida. Just about a year ago this week, biologist Zeb Hogan was exploring the Mekong River in northern Cambodia when he got word of a giant stingray caught by anglers in the Bang Pakong River in Thailand. Although skeptical, Hogan went to meet the anglers and was rewarded with a 14-foot-long (4.3-meter-long) whiptail ray Himantura chaophraya. And the monster was pregnant! Now I've seen a lot of large ocean rays in my days, but I had no idea that a ray could get quite this big! And this is a freshwater species no less! The whiptail ray, first described by science only as recently as 1989, is rumored to reach a mammoth size of 1000 lbs (450 Kilograms) in rivers of Southeast Asia and northern Australia. This fact, if verified, would make this the largest freshwater fish on the planet. Check out the following video clip of this "megafish":

Hogan's stingray discovery is part of The Megafishes Project, the first worldwide attempt to document and protect the planet’s freshwater giant fishes. To qualify as a "megafish," a species must grow to at least 6.5 feet (2 meters) in length or 220 pounds (100 kilograms) in weight. Big fish, much like their terrestrial counterparts, are facing extreme threats. Also similar to their terrestrial counterparts, their presence is indicative of a healthy, thriving ecosystem. The places where these fishes exist are the last of what might be considered freshwater wilderness on our planet. However, everything from over-fishing, dams, pollution and habitat destruction are contributing to the demise of these giants. Many of the large fish are now on the path toward extinction, a warning sign of severe problems confronting river ecosystems.

If the whiptail ray is a fish larger than would be expected, another recent National Geographic story highlights the discovery of a small fish that is usually thought of as big.
A newborn whale shark Rhincodon typus was found last week in San Antonio, Philippines. After learning it was for sale, a project leader from the international conservation organization WWF went to investigate. What he found, leashed to a stake in the mud, was a 15 inch shark - the smallest ever reported. The shark was later released and researchers are optimistic that clues towards identifying the birthing grounds will help better protect this species.

For more on big fishes, tune into the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, March 15th for Monster Fish of the Amazon at 8pm followed by Monster Fish of the Mekong at 9pm. These are the latest media installments of The Megafishes Project, previews of which can be viewed below.

Colbert Gets Barreleyed

Melbourne, Florida. You may recall the barreleye fish from a few posts back. Check the reaction on

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blue Fever

Melbourne, Florida. In recent years we've seen unprecedented and disturbing trends take shape in our planet's oceans. As scientists estimate the loss of 90% of large predatory fishes and potentially half the world's tropical corals, humankind's footprint on the ocean is more visible than ever. But there is hope. A global network of passionate marine conservationists are becoming increasingly vocal and ever more tech-savvy in terms of communicating the ocean's plight.

Enduring mainstays of marine conservation such as Dr. Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau are now being joined by a host of concerned scientists, explorers and emerging advocates who are adding their voices to a global call to action asking us to rethink how our species interfaces with the ocean environment. Considering the sometimes gloom and doom statistics facing the wet part of our planet, it is not surprising to see growing concern and new leadership take shape. However, it is the means by which these salty saviors are communicating that raises an eyebrow. Traditional written media, policy wonking and boring research briefs are overshadowed by a wave of film, new media, innovative exploration and youth-geared cool factor. It is as if the innovative precedent set by Jacques Cousteau, considered by many to be the grandfather of ocean messaging, has been exponentially magnified by the latest generation. And right in the thick of things are Cousteau's actual grandchildren. Both Fabien and Philippe Cousteau have followed in the family footsteps to bring the ocean to the populace of 21st Century.

But the Cousteau men are just a few of the many young voices speaking out for the ocean. Ocean Revolution, a youth movement launched by sea turtle biologist J. Nichols, is geared at preparing the next generation of ocean leaders. These future leaders are even now utilizing on-line tools never before imagined, such as Google Earth's new ocean layer. This recent expansion of Google Earth allows desktop explorers to not only roam our planet's cities and above water-terrain, but also below the waves to the deepest depths of the ocean. The layer is riddled with stunning graphic bathymetry, vivid imagery and compelling stories of our watery world. Users can scout surf sites, visit with satellite-tagged whales and sharks in real time, or learn what can be done to restore healthy oceans.

Another young person to watch is Roz Savage, who recently spoke on a panel of explorers at the Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. Roz, a native of Great Britain, was the first woman to solo paddle across the Atlantic. Not satisfied with that accomplishment, she also recently paddled from San Francisco to Hawai'i and plans to complete the trans-Pacific voyage to Australia in coming months. And aside from accomplishing monumental physical feats, Roz uses satellite technology to send out podcasts and written updates of her voyages and concern for the oceans onto the Internet. The following clip from YouTube tells her story:

In upcoming months look forward to more compelling ocean media at the Blue Ocean Film Festival, for which registration recently began. The festival, which will take place in Savannah, Georgia from June 11-14th, 2009, will be a showcase for films meant to inspire people to protect our oceans and the life within. This is the 2nd such film festival this year. The San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, which just recently wrapped, also drew large numbers and showcased spectacular films on our ocean planet.

Finally, marine scientists and conservationists from the world over will soon converge in Washington, D.C. for the 1st International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) on May 19-24th, 2009. Using everything from submersibles to satellite tags, these ocean professionals employ increasingly innovative tools to gain better insights into the ocean and what can be done to protect it. What new tools, inspiring media and creative solutions will emerge from this next gathering of the minds? We'll have to wait and see...

Image credit: Octopus: NOAA

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Playin' the Wild Card!

Melbourne, Florida. After a brief input period, Walk on the Wild Side is now this blog’s official name. I’d like to thank the many people who contributed thoughtful and creative name ideas via Facebook. To mention a few of my favorite runners-up, we had Wild at Heart, Playin’ the Wild Card and Into the Great Wide Open from Rebecca Suder, blogger at the Richmond Times' Parenting Blog; and Where the Wild Things Are from conservationist Kelly Rigg of the Varda Group. On the humorous side, actor Michael Arturo contributed Anywhere Arlo goes…; Melbourne Beach, Florida Mayor Rita Karpie contributed Arlone in the Woods and political conservative Mark Patton offered Confessions of a Recovering Liberal. To keep track of Walk on the Wild Side via Facebook, please join the blog’s fan site.

On other fronts, herpetologist and scientific illustrator Ted Kahn, who submitted the winning blog name, has provided the pictures and following content for this post. His own picture of the red salamander Psuedotriton ruber is seen below. The Wildlife Conservation Society picture above of an adult and toadlet Panamanian golden frog Atelopus zeteki depicts one of the many amphibians globally that now face extinction due to the synergist impacts of habitat loss, climate change, disease spread and introduction of invasive species. Amphibians – as so called “indicator species” - are bellwethers of what may follow for other life forms, including the human species, if steps are not taken to avert declines through the maintenance of intact and resilient wilderness areas.

Ted Kahn writes:

“Sadly, stunning toad species like this Atelopus zeteki from Panama and its cryptically green progeny, which will later in life turn brilliant yellow and black, may eventually only exist in zoological parks, and then only in photographs and to those of us lucky enough to have memories. Atelopus toads are considered the world’s most critically endangered terrestrial vertebrate species. Amphibians, in general, face an extinction rate as high as the last great extinction event, the 5th, which occurred 65 million years ago. It is our obligation to prevent the 6th mass extinction. Yes, the one we are experiencing now today.

While the world’s frogs and toads have held the spotlight, salamanders are also in dire need of conservation. Few people know that North America hosts the highest salamander diversity in the world. And they are facing extinction as well.

What can you do? Start by talking about it, look, listen and learn – then take appropriate action with the folks you meet, know, and have a “can do” attitude. It is my hope that this forum (Walk on the Wild Side) will facilitate action and reduce red tape that so often hampers solid good ideas. It is about time “Yes We Can” applied to all life, wildlife that is…”

For more information on amphibian declines and how you can be involved, visit the websites of the Declining Amphibian Population Task Force and IUCN/SSC’s Amphibian Specialist Group.

Thanks again Ted for this great input. If any reader has wilderness-related content or story ideas you would like to see posted on Walk on the Wild Side, please contact me (Arlo Hemphill) through this site.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pleistocene Park

Melbourne, Florida. It’s an early starry night on the Central Florida Coast. Venus sits off to the west, soaking up the last rays of the sun. Orion, my guardian, is directly overhead - forever chasing his Pleiades, while Sirius picks up the rear.

This past month has been a good time to think about Florida wildlife. I did an appliance commercial in Orlando last week and ended up driving there round trip from Melbourne for two days. Boca rode with me the first day and directed me along rural back roads he referred to as the “Cow Way”. Due to its remote feeling, I opted for this route for all four legs of my trip and was rewarded with some great roadside views of wildlife. There were raccoons, an armadillo, a bald eagle, and an entire flock of wild turkey, white-tailed deer and a team of sandhill cranes grazing in the roadside grass. One afternoon, back at home, I observed a mother osprey taking its fledgling out for a first flight. The young raptor was all screeches and manic flapping, while its elegant mother glided effortlessly below. I also saw a number of wild boars along the highway. And I don’t mean I saw two pigs. There were at least ten full size adults moving along with 20-30 tiny piglets that were running circles around their elders. Most of these were black as coal, but others were a shade of auburn that could almost be described as bright. I have a couple Florida friends who are big boar hunters – rifles, bows, ATVs, orange camouflage, the whole works. But I personally had not seen these animals before. It was somewhat of a surprise to encounter them grazing in the open, seemingly oblivious to human presence.

But wild boars are not native to Florida. They were introduced from Europe and in fact are a major pest. Ecologists claim that these animals are driving a localized extinction event as their pattern of uprooting vegetation is preventing sapling growth in South Florida’s last remaining tropical hardwood hammocks. I’d prefer to see them gone rather than to lose the native species of Florida’s natural heritage.

Now all this got me to thinking… While we might argue the European pigs shouldn’t be here, might there be animals that are not here and should be? During my undergraduate years at Palm Beach Atlantic University, I studied under a biology professor by the name of Peggy VanArman. Every year Dr. Peggy would take a few of us on a fossil hunting canoe trip along Florida’s Peace River. It’s your typical Central Florida waterway, lined with Spanish moss dusted cypress and littered with alligator. But this river hosts a bonanza of fossils – the remainder of animals both terrestrial and marine that roamed this part of the world in ages past. On a good day intrepid scavengers can scrounge up everything from camel vertebrae to the oversized teeth of Carcharodon megalodon - that monstrous pre-historic cousin of our present day great white shark. But what struck me the most back then was Peggy’s book on the fossils of Florida. The cover was an oil paint depiction of Pleistocene life in Florida. The landscape looked largely the same as today – sabal palms, palmettos, sawgrass and scrubby vegetation. But there was something unequivocally different about the Florida in this picture. Front and center in the landscape was a herd of giant pachyderms. Mammoths! And scattered about were other large mammals of the day, the relatives of horse, rhinos and camels that once roamed North America. It was an image that captured and has persisted in my imagination for years.

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting a cool, young scientist by the name of Josh Donlan. Dr. Donlan published a fascinating, but highly controversial paper in the science journal Nature. The topic was on “rewilding” North America with megafauna - large land mammals. Such mammals, the likes of which are found primarily in Africa and Asia today, became extinct here in North America around 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene. And the likely culprit? Us. Humans, upon entering North America for the first time, hunted them into oblivion. The basic premise of “rewilding” is that many of our existing plants and animals co-evolved with these large beasts and their absence creates an incomplete, somewhat less healthy, landscape ecology. The idea is to restore biological function lost to this continent millennia ago. Now, naturally, there is no way to bring back woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed cats and the other 60 some large mammals that went the way of the dodo. But what Donlan proposes is that we replace many of them with their nearest genetic (and theoretically ecological) equivalent. This would mean African elephants for mastodons, African lions and cheetahs for their American counterparts and so on. And the double-win for conservation would be providing a new home for these animals that are increasingly threatened with extinction in their modern ranges.

Although a thrilling prospect from my viewpoint, it is easy to see why this paper caused a bit of a stir. We’ve spent the past 500 years ridding the landscape of wolves, mountain lions, buffalo and grizzly bears to make way for the Wal-Marts and false sense of security of our sprawling suburban neighborhoods. The last thing the broader public wants to think about is how to deal with elephants and lions strolling up during a 4th of July backyard barbeque. But despite the improbability of gaining anything even resembling public support for this plan, I love it. It is the wilderness romantic in me. The concept somehow overrides any sense of precaution, common sense or otherwise “rational” thought I might loosely claim to sometimes have. It is beautiful, savage dream of a revived wilderness lost in time.

And this brings me back to the wide open land ranging between the Atlantic coast and Orlando. This is beautiful, wild Florida ranchland dotted with cypress domes, temperate forest and grasslands as far as the eye can see. Why not create a “Pleistocene Park” here? Why not test Donlan’s “rewilding” concept on a small, controlled scale? Conceptually, it would not be so different from the safari parks and game ranches that currently exist in both Florida and Texas. But this would be no microcosm of the Dark Continent created for the amusement of tourists or the trophy walls of middle class gunmen. This would be a replication of Florida – a Florida before Jimmy Buffett, before the Everglades were drained, before even the native Americans whose language persists in names like Okeechobee and Loxahatchee. This is the Florida before people.

African elephants and lions would be complimented by South American tapirs, guanacos, and capybaras (horse, camel and guinea pig relatives respectively, the ancestors of which all once roamed the Florida landscape). There might be herds of wild horse and, of course, the native alligator and Florida panther.
If a large enough landscape was bought up and fenced in so that these animals could range free rather than survive only in separated pens, it would be a fascinating ecological experiment. How would they interact with each other and with the native flora and fauna? Which species would thrive and which would become naturally “rare”? Would the landscape change under the influence of mighty pachyderms? Would social patterns become altered to adapt to the new (old) ecology?

But beyond scientific curiosity, such a park would be a valuable tool in better understanding this portion of the North American landscape. It could be an educational device for society, helping us better adapt to and co-exist with the natural world, rather than beating it into submission as has been our pattern over past millennia. Finally, it would be a genetic reservoir. A place from where, should anything unfortunately go wrong with us, nature in all of its majesty could spring forth again and repopulate. This is a wild dream in every sense of the word, but one I would love to see come true.

Images courtesy Carl Buell (Cornell University), Wild Florida and the Florida Museum

Welcome to "Walk on the Wild Side"

Melbourne, Florida. Welcome to Walk on the Wild Side, a blog dedicated to the exploration and conservation of wilderness. Wilderness - in all its forms - has captivated my imagination and passions throughout my life. And the importance of understanding and conserving wilderness, particularly those few remaining large wilderness areas of the world, is paramount to human survival. This blog intends to bring you regular updates on expeditions, fun facts and emerging issues and news on wilderness areas of the world. It will also serve as a forum for narrating some of my personal sojourns into our planet's wild corners.

The idea behind this blog has been a long time coming. A good buddy of mine, Trevon Clow, has been encouraging me to write regularly on subjects close to my heart. And, recently, posts from my personal blog (Where is Arlo Now??) have become increasingly focused on conservation, exploration and wilderness themes. This has been so much so that I had considered reformating that site as a wilderness blog. However, in the end I opted for making a fresh start. In doing so, I asked my friends to chime in with idea for a good blog name. The name chosen - Walk on the Wild Side - came from Mr. Ted Kahn, a talented herpetologist and scientific illustrator.

As a first taste of the type of wilderness content to be hosted, a couple recent news clips from National Geographic are highlighted here. First, a jaguar has been captured and collared in the U.S. for the first time in a century. Jaguars, once common in the southern United States, have all but vanished in recent decades. This individual was found to the southwest of Tucson, Arizona, indicating that jaguars are extending further into the U.S. than was thought. Previous sitings of jaguars in the U.S. in recent years have all occurred very close to the Arizona-Mexico border. As a top predator, the return of jaguars is a strong step towards restoring lost biological function to North American wilderness.
While it has taken us centuries to appreciate the value of having large predators such as the jaguar in our terrestrial environments, we are only beginning to understand the dynamics of life in the deep sea.
The video here shows a newly discovered fish off California's central coast. The Pacific barreleye fish has highly sensitive, barrel-like eyes--topped by green, orblike lenses. It is indicative of the the many amazing life forms we risk losing before discovery if our oceans are not better cared for.
Thanks for stopping by to check out Walk on the Wild Side. Please join Team Wilderness as a blog follower and check back regularly for more wild news!