A conservation researcher answers Torie Bosch’s question “Big feet.”

I was once in conversation with an environmental historian who made a comment that stuck with me: humans are of the species homo tinkerus. His point was that moderation is hard for people, particularly in our environment: we love to change things. Historically, these interventions focused on human activities, such as explorers trying to recreate English gardens or hunters bringing their preferred game into an area. But as the disastrous effects of human activity on Earth’s ecosystems have become undeniable, some humans have turned their impulse to modify the environment to reverse the damage our species has caused. And while there is merit in trying to right our own mistakes, history has taught us that even pure intentions cannot protect against unexpected and potentially dangerous consequences.
The Torie Bosch StoryBig feet”, styled as a magazine article for the fictional New Yorker-esque publication Matter of Fact, presents a dramatic example of humans tinkering with ecosystems and the potential strange and unforeseen environmental (as well as legal and social) consequences. Dr. Shelley, the unnamed scientist at the heart of the story, describes how Bigfeet, genetically modified approximations of the legendary cryptid, were created and then dumped into the forests of North America, with no thought to what might happen to them. or to other species. they would coexist

This fictional scenario has many real-world counterparts: In the 1920s, game hunters released a dozen ibex on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington state, the same region where some of the Bigfeet of the history. Like Bigfeet, the ibex population grew out of control rapidly. Goats have caused problems from eating scant alpine plants to trying to lick Salt from hikers’ clothing and gear: Salt deposits do not occur naturally on the peninsula, but goats need it in their diet. As a result, federal and state land managers were forced to carefully apply the multi-year slogan plan to relocate or extirpate goats (including transfer of some by helicopter to more suitable habitats).

The list of other examples is long: rabbits in australia (also for sport hunting), invasive ornamental grasses in Arizonaand even rats, inadvertently, stowaways to distant islands on ships. Each has resulted in ecosystem problems that then need to be corrected with further interventions, potentially causing a cascade of further consequences. Scientists working on the fictional Bigfeet project hoped to create a large herbivore that could serve as a food source for predators and add nutrients to the soil through its droppings, but over time, they also realized that their major effort was In essence, a billionaire’s revenge project. While the Bigfeet are a huge hit with tourists and a global media phenomenon, they are already causing agricultural problems and threatening the food source and habitat of an endangered species.

In the Pacific Northwest, Bigfeet begin to feed on rough brushone of the host plants for endangered species Taylor’s Checker Point Butterfly, decimating the butterfly population. In response, the US government fines Thomas Bunch, the tycoon behind the Bigfeet project, who also faces jail time (although he has disappeared). But a nominal fine and a few months behind bars do little to make up for the loss of a species. Butterflies are important pollinators and could be the canary in the coal mine for species in ecosystems invaded by Bigfeet, whose dietary needs and preferences are not yet well understood and could result in cascading destruction.

There are larger potential effects from Bigfeet introduction, spreading from local ecosystems. Through the climate crisis, humans are in the process of altering every inch of the Earth, from ocean floors to mountain tops. Bigfeet is a chimera, created by combining the DNA of multiple animals, from the extinct primate. gigantopithecus to bonobos and black bears. One of the animals included is the cow, which adds a moment of levity to the story as we learn about Bigfeet mooing. Cattle—and in especially his burps— contribute significantly to climate change. Cow burps contain methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 28 to 34 times hotter in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Cows and other animals are responsible for 40 percent of global methane emissions. Bigfeet’s bovine heritage is doubly concerning for the climate because they reproduce quickly (which some observers in history “blatantly” speculate that it could be thanks to rabbit DNA), compounding their environmental effects.

The ethics around all of this, in real life and in fiction, is mind-boggling. Mitigating human impacts on landscapes forces scientists and land managers to make difficult decisions. Judging the long-term effects of specific interventions requires a lot of research, and even then, it cannot account for everything. Take, for example, the greater glider, a small long-tailed marsupial that was locally extinct within Australia’s Booderee National Park around 2010. One theory for their demise is that when land managers reduced the red fox population, woodland owls may have adjusted their diet, eating more gliders and eventually wiping them out.

Introducing a new species is not a decision land managers take lightly; hence the secrecy and extralegal nature of Bunch’s project. Although Bigfeet is a “designer species,” designed to align with Sasquatch lore, eliminating the extinction of an actual historical species is a very real proposition, and one that is sometimes hypothetically intended to protect and enrich the environment. Woolly mammoths, extinct for thousands of years, have been proposed as a target for extinction, and scientist George Church is actively trying to bring them back to siberia He theorizes that mammoths, by stomping their feet, could change Siberia’s moss-dominated landscape into a grassland, which better sequesters carbon and could help combat climate change.

Other proposals, such as those to eliminate the extinction of the homing pigeon, aim to correct a previous human error. Homing pigeons were once so numerous in North America that European settlers described the skies turning black as night due to their mass migrations. But overhunting and habitat loss (thanks to settlers clearing forests for agriculture and logging) decimated their populations. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914; Proposals to recover this species are based on modifying the genes of band-tailed pigeons to mimic homing pigeon traits. Some scientists hope that de-extincting the homing pigeon will help restore forest regeneration cycles, leading to healthier and more biodiverse landscapes. In an ecosystem that hasn’t seen this species in over a century, such a happy ending is far of guaranteed.

The revenge project described in the story of the forest provides a great example of the risks of meddling with ecosystems; it also addresses the ethics of messing with species composition and genetic modification. Gene editing technology like CRISPR-Cas9 can be an amazing tool with seemingly limitless uses. However, when looking at ecosystems, great thought and care must be taken in decisions to use them. There have been many well-intentioned proposals for species modification (although none as drastic as creating a Bigfeet chimera), such as modifying bees to resist parasites and viruses which can lead to colony collapse, or modifying mosquito populations to make them go extinct, protecting humans from diseases like malaria. Although tinkering with species and ecosystems is tempting for a variety of reasons, from safeguarding vulnerable humans and animals to repairing serious damage caused by human activity, our penchant for meddling often leads to even more tangled chains of cause and effect. effect.

Future time
is a society of
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arizona state university
which examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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