June 19, 2011

Elephant: a truly invasive species?

Readers may know Salem, Massachusetts as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne or the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  But, you may not know that Salem was one of the first ports that received the first elephant to step foot on American soil!

The year was 1796, and the merchant's idea was to purchase the elephant for US$450, bring it to the US, and make a profit through shows or selling the beast.  You can read all about the import and subsequent circus travels here[image at right is a handbill from the elephant's visit to Boston, where people were advised not to go near it with important papers, as it had a fondness for grabbing and shredding documents]

Americans, of course, were intrigued by this odd creature that was returning to the home of its ice-age ancestors (the State Museum in Nebraska has a great collection of these prehistoric pachyderms).  Our infatuation with the unusual has led to the import of many wildlife species, and most of these stories end badly--new predators that suppress native prey species or filter-feeding aquatic species that knock ecosystems out of whack. 

Elephants don't match the definition of an invasive species (high reproductive potential, mainly), so--200 years later--we're not overrun by elephants in North America.  However, some biologists have suggested that elephants (and lions and other critters) should be reintroduced to the Great Plains through a process called 're-wilding'.  That's interesting to think about.  Obviously, the suggestion is more than a little controversial, especially given our success with exotic introductions during the 20th century. 

Maybe the US should have elephants roaming the plains?  During a recent trip to Namibia, our students were amused when the native Namibians were astounded to hear that we did not have lions and elephants in the US.  You could just see their amazement that elephants were not a universal creature.

Our family recently visited Salem, where I read about the story of the 18th-century day when the elephant walked down a very long wharf towards the amazed townspeople.  As I think about the Re-wilding of North America, despite my conclusion, I'll have a new image in my mind--that of an elephant making the slow walk down the gangplank and wharf, towards Salem. 
Image obtained from this site.

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