Predicting the Animals of the Future

Jim Cooke / Gizmodo

Gizmodo asks half a dozen natural historians to speculate on who is going to be doing what jobs on Earth after the people disappear. One of the streams that runs wide and deep through this series of fun thought experiments is how so many niches stay the same through catastrophic changes in the roster of Earth’s animals. Dinosaurs die out but giant predatory birds evolve to take their place; butterflies took over from (unrelated) dot-winged, nectar-sipping giant lacewing pollinator forebears; before orcas there were flippered ocean-going crocodiles, and there will probably be more one day.

In Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes about a vision in which she witnesses glaciers rolling back and forth “like blinds” over the Appalachian Mountains. In this Gizmodo piece, Alexis Mychajliw of the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum talks about how fluctuating sea levels connected island chains or made them, fusing and splitting populations in great oscillating cycles, shrinking some creatures and giantizing others. There’s something soothing in the view from orbit paleontologists, like other deep-time mystics, possess, embody, and transmit: a sense for the clockwork of the cosmos and its orderliness, an appreciation for the powerful resilience of life even in the face of the ephemerality of life-forms.

While everybody interviewed here has obvious pet futures owing to their areas of interest, hold all of them superimposed together and you’ll get a clearer image of the secret teachings of biology…

(This article must have been inspired deeply by Dougal Dixon’s book After Man, but doesn’t mention him – perhaps a fair turn, given Dixon was accused of plagiarizing Wayne Barlowe for his follow-up, Man After Man.)

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