Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Smarter Than the Average Bear?

As I’ve mentioned previously, having young boys with inquisitive minds means that I end watching a lot of nature and science documentaries. Some are extremely interesting, others excruciatingly boring, especially when viewed for the thirteenth or fourteenth times. One trend that I’ve noticed is that almost every nature program produced around the mid-2000s will include a reference to the inconvertible truth and dire consequences of man-made global warming. Similar shows made in the last couple of years are usually more circumspect about the cause of the warming and its impact.

Some of the favorite shows that our kids like to watch on Netflix are various series about prehistoric creatures that inhabited the earth after the dinosaurs. These included ferocious whales and sharks in the seas and saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, terror birds and a bevy of other fascinating beasts that have long disappeared from our world. Among these is the arctodus or short-faced bear. This short-faced bear was among the largest of its species ever and was an impressive predator. It was larger than the grizzly (which was also around at the same time) and relied on its immense strength to overpower its prey. It ate meat almost exclusively and ate a LOT of it. Yet it’s not around today and the grizzly is. Why?

Believe it or not, well before humans created our carbon energy based modern world, the world’s climate was apt to dramatic changes. When you watch these prehistoric nature shows with the kids you’re reminded just how catastrophic some of these climate changes were. It was just such a climate change that probably lead to the demise of the short-faced bear. Usually there are multiple causes for causes for species extinction and the short-faced bear is no exception. The big problem for the carnivorous short-faced bear was that the large prey animals on which they depended for sustenance began to disappear. This occurred because of changes in the climate and because humans began hunting these same animals. The short-faced bears weren’t able to adapt to these changes and so died off. But the grizzlies also faced the same challenges and yet they survived. Why?

One of the reasons cited was that grizzlies were smarter than the short-faced bears. Since they already had a more varied diet, they started off with an advantage. But they also changed their eating habits and began eating more plants and bugs to make up for the lack of large prey. Some of this was made possible by them learning where to find these alternative sources of food. They were smart enough to manage this adaptation while the short-faced bear was not.

So assume for a moment that all the worst case fears about global warming are true. The earth is getting warmer. The warmer is largely the result of human activity. And the consequences are going to be dire. Are you telling me that we—the top of the top when it comes to species ever to inhabit this pale blue dot we call earth--won’t be able to adapt to any climate changes that come our way? Are you really telling me that we aren’t smarter than the average bear? No offense to members of the Ursidae family out there, but my money’s on man.