Are humans destroying their own nest?

Around 15,000 years ago - there weren't any cities in North America.

Instead the continent was covered with grassland and forest land.

And according to new research - there was a lot more poop from large animals all around.

And that poop nourished life on Earth.

New research from researchers at the University of Vermont shows that feces from animals are essential in moving nutrients up the food chain.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - and it points to a wide array of animals involved in the nutrient cycle - including whales - seabirds - animals that graze on land - and large predators.

The study is more than just a fun reason to talk scatological, though - it's also a dire warning about how human activities are leading to an impending breakdown of our planet's food web and nutrient cycles.

If we go back 15,000 years - the North American continent was home to mammoths and mastodons - elk and moose - and large carnivores like the saber tooth cat and the dire wolf.

All of these animals acted as a "distribution pump" with their feces - transporting nutrients from "hot spots" to other places.

And the distribution of nutrients works two ways - both up through the food chain biologically - and across the continent geographically.

Take my friend Stuart Pimm's example of a discovering how bear poop is essential to forest health in the Pacific Northwest.

Forests in the Pacific Northwest were lacking iodide in their soil - which trees in that area need to survive.

It was already interesting that the trees required iodide - which comes from the ocean - when the forests were very clearly inland.

But even more interesting was the fact that the forests suddenly started growing back - and that the soil was getting more and more iodide.

So what happened?

It turns out - some of the dams on the rivers had been torn out recently - and those dams had been blocking the Pacific Salmon populations from spawning upstream from the oceans.

With the dams removed - the salmon could once again spawn upstream - and the bears could once again eat the salmon.

Since the salmon would swim up the rivers from the ocean - they were rich in iodide - and once the bears had digested the salmon - they would poop that iodide in the forest where it would enrich the soils.

The iodide moved through the food-chain while it traveled from the Ocean to the inland forests.

That's how interconnected life on this planet is - and breaking just one link in the chain - can cause an entire ecosystem to collapse.

But it's not just iodide - let's look at another example with phosphorus.

Phosphorus is commonplace in households in the form of fertilizer - but it's also essential in the creation of DNA - and a building block for cell membranes.

It's essential for life on Earth.

Seabirds and some types of fish - like salmon - once carried more than 300 million pounds of phosphorus from the ocean onto land each year.

According to the study - that figure is down to about 4% of what it was - closer to 12 million pounds.

Marine mammals - like whales - used to move around 750 million pounds of phosphorus from the ocean's depths to the surface every year - that number is now closer to 165 million pounds.

And we've seen in American history what happens when we lose large grazing mammals and their poop.

Just look at the bison and how the collapse of the bison population in the great plains contributed to the dust bowl.

Likewise - researchers at UC Berkeley point to the loss of large animals in Alaska and the Yukon thousands of years ago as the reason that the region transformed from a productive mix of forest and grassland into the unproductive tundra that we know today.

And that lines up to what we're seeing in Africa - as elephants populations have dramatically declined, thorntrees have filled the landscape across the African savanna.

Both studies highlight the fact that it's particularly damaging when large animals and top predators are eliminated from the food chain - according to UC Berkeley study leader Anthony Barnosky:

"[I]f you pull out a top predator or a key herbivore today, you get dramatic change in the ecosystem. Our study makes it clear that in the past, such changes have lasted for thousands of years. These extinctions really do permanently change the dynamics. You can't go back."

So what's driven these extinctions historically?

Back 15,000 years ago, it was a naturally changing climate - combined with the appearance of Neolithic hunters.

Today the leading cause is humans - and the effects of climate change fueled by human activity.

According to research published at the end of August - our hunting and fishing habits are so out of control that scientists are now referring to humans as "superpredators."

We're wiping out adult populations of top predators at 9 times the rate that would naturally occur - and we're wiping out adult fish populations at 14 times the rate of what would naturally occur.

We're warming - polluting - and overfishing our oceans - we're making inland waterways toxic and fragmenting ecosystems with shortsighted and poorly conceived construction projects.

It's time to realize that human activity has real - lasting - effects on the planet - and to realize exactly how complex and interconnected the natural world is.

We need to get serious about cleaning up the environment and addressing runaway climate change - and we need to fundamentally change how we see our place in nature.

We need to get serious about living WITH nature - instead of living at the expense of nature.


stecoop01's picture
stecoop01 8 years 34 weeks ago

And we need to stop reproducing at an unsustainable rate. Mother Earth would be in much better shape if our numbers had never passed the 2 billion mark. But now it's too late...the damage is done and it's permanent.

travisbickle's picture
travisbickle 8 years 34 weeks ago

"awfully" informative piece, ain't it? We may need another Ragnarok to restore balance to this F'n mess!

russelldobkins's picture
russelldobkins 8 years 34 weeks ago


Ou812's picture
Ou812 8 years 34 weeks ago

Save the world, go poop in your neighbors yard:))

sarmus's picture
sarmus 8 years 34 weeks ago

For more info on this fascinating subject, I recommend Alan Savory's Ted Talk "How to fight desertification and reverse climate change".

Craig Bush's picture
Craig Bush 8 years 34 weeks ago

We are on an exponential line to a thermus maximus event and mass extinction. We buried a car on campus in Ann Arbor in 73. We knew then, that if we did not bury these petrol chemical burning cars they will bury us. Exonn-Mobil knew it then, too. Jimmy Carter understood and put solar on top of the white house and set a national priority for renewables. Reagan Bush oil took them down. Clintons didn't put them back up or ever addressed global warming and a national green energy program. Hillary was all for fracking in eastern europe and keystone at first. Only a few politicians like Al Gore and Bernie Sanders have shown true leadership on global warming. It is too late now. Mankind would have to demand a ban on the manufacturing and export of all fossil burnig vehicles now. End to coal burning and slash burn deforestation. Plant a trillion trees and end rain forest tree cutting. Switch from tree pulp to hemp for paper products. We only have a window of 17 years at most to reverse the trajectory to mass extinction. We know species out of balance with nature are doomed to extinction. Why do we still talk as if we are exempt? Where are the plans to reverse global warming? Will we have to wait to we see the blue methane clouds appear? How do we re-freeze melted permafrost? Will it even matter, if the methane already has been released in amounts that will doom us? 200 species a day go extinct. We are not going to piece back an ecosystem web so badly torn. Rachel Carson knew these things in the 50's. It has only gotten worse. Some of us knew better and did nothing. We have become insane primates out of balance with nature destroying a planet. How do we look our great grandchildren in the eyes?

Instant-RunOff-... 8 years 34 weeks ago

Renewables are just a bait-and-switch scam invented by Big Fossil to ensure their energy hegemony will continue well into the next century. Bankster/Oil Barons just love how gullible fools get suckered in by their incessant promotion and financing of nutty renewable energy scams.

So as stated in the Thom's article, hydro is very destructive to the environment. The most destructive energy source is Biomass, which extracts minerals and carbon from the natural forest ecosystem and ends up dumping it into landfills or the atmosphere, as toxic waste. That is unsustainable:

Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green. An Interview with Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger:

Alice Friedemann. 2007. Peak Soil: Why Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security:

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”, President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Hydro ain't clean energy either. Most Hydro expansion is in developing countries where vast areas of beautiful, productive ecosystems, are being decimated by giant hydro reservoirs. The huge reservoirs destroy enormous stores of vegetation and soil, causing massive releases of methane through rotting biomass, which makes the hydro almost as bad as fossil fuels in terms of GHG emissions. And large populations dispaced by the land destruction. Some reservoirs as much as 7000 producing as much power as Fukushima did, but even counting all the temporarily radioisotope contaminated land near Fuku was 400, which still remains a wildlife paradise & natural ecosystem, that has <1/10th the radiation level of a popular beach in Brazil. Hydro using some 1200X more land than Nuclear power. And climate change causes draught leading to low hydro output. And one Hydro dam failure in China killed ~200 thousand people. A near hydro dam collapse in Colorado in 1983 was one inch from being the worst natural disaster in US history:

So this "wonderful" renewable energy is 94% eco-destructive, unsustainable hydro & biomass. 75% is Biomass, which the WHO calculates kills 3.5 million people every year, due to its toxic emissions. But because it has the "renewable" tag, the Greenie Religious types (as opposed to Rational Environmentalists) embrace it with reverence akin to worship.

Fact: Only nuclear energy is capable of replacing fossil fuels. And the fossil fuel people know that very well, so they will do anything, repeat anything to prevent raising the nuclear juggernaut, even promoting expensive renewable energy scams that they know very well won't do zip to replace their toxic, smoke belching energy supply.

Kilosqrd's picture
Kilosqrd 8 years 34 weeks ago

Reply to #7

200 species go extinct every day? That's 1400 species going extinct every week. Name one that went extinct last week. Just one.

JessieV's picture
JessieV 8 years 34 weeks ago

This discussion reminds me of a poem Kurt Vonnegut wrote at the closure of his last book:


By Kurt Vonnegut

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,

"Forgive them, Father,

They know not what they do."

The irony would be

that we know what

we are doing.

When the last living thing

has died on account of us,

how poetical it would be

if earth could say
in a voice floating up


from the floor

of the Grand Canyon,

"It is done."

People did not like it here.

SueN's picture
SueN 8 years 34 weeks ago

I'd like to know where you got more of your percentages from, they differ a great deal from those I have seen.

Renewables are most certainly not a scam. "Renewable energy provided an estimated 19.1% of global final energy consumption in 2013, and growth in capacity and
generation continued to expand in 2014." ( Not too shabby! Think of all the greenhouse gases saved.

Renewables include traditional biomass (burning wood and dung), new biomass, hydro, energy from wastes, geothermal, wind, wave, tide, solar...

Hydro provides about 1/6 of world electricity. True, large scale hydro plants can be destructive of environment and communities and effect local water flow and take up a lot of land - I certainly hope there are no more giant schemes - but small scale hydro is seen as less harmful and is growing. More dams are being fitted with fish ladders to enable salmon to return to their traditional spawning grounds. Not all schemes have led to major disruption to populations - areas with large fast flowing water are often a long way from towns. Another downside is that silt may build up behind a dam, depriving agriculture downstream of regular nutrient replenishment, and necessitating the use of fertilizers instead.

The amount of methane given off by a reservoir with rotting material is about one fortieth that of a coal fire plant producing the same amount of electricity.

On the plus side, hydroelectric releases no CO2 once running (though construction of large plants involves a lot of concrete) and scarcely contributes to acid rain. It also produces no health- or environment-harming particulates or other harmful chemicals. It produces no radioactivity. It causes no major fires. It can help with flood control and irrigation and reservoirs may be scenic and suitable for recreation.

A major dam collapse would impact all downstream and those who relied on it for electricity, but nobody further afield. A major nuclear catastrophe not only affects locals and consumers, but some of the radiation can spread far and wide, and thanks to bioaccumulation it can cross oceans in the flesh of predator fish. And the nuclear industry has still not come up with a way to safely handle its wastes. And the coal and oil industries do not handle theirs in much f the world, just polluting the soil and air to the detriment of all.

If nuclear energy was that viable, the fossil fuel companies would have diversified into it. It is also vulnerable to climate change, as the waters it uses for cooling get warmer, and the sea levels rise.

Biomass covers a wide variety of fuels. Some are waste, and being used as fuel prevents them from being wasted in landfill.

Biomass is carbon neutral - it involves the carbon that has only recently been taken in by plants and that is regularly recycled between plants and the atmosphere. It does not use up ancient reserves like fossil fuels do, producing carbon dioxide that has not been in the atmosphere for aeons.

The biomass which kills people is often wood or dung that is burnt in inefficient stoves or fires in poor people's homes in the third world, releasing lung-destroying particulates or gases. This is being addressed by a variety of schemes, but will take time to remedy.

Where crops are grown specifically for fuel, they may be in competition with agriculture - it is preferable for these to be grown on land that is not very suitable for growing food. Some policies do need changing, but the problem can be solved.

What we need is an intelligent mix of renewables.

SueN's picture
SueN 8 years 34 weeks ago

I don;t know, but here are some of the bigger ones (the tip of the iceberg) that have become extinct recently, apparently

It is seldom that we can say exactly when a species became extinct. The passenger pigeon ( and the Tasmanian Tiger are exceptions.

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