Endings and Beginnings

ILLG__U7X1542 Wapusk, Manitoba, Canada

Most scientists are in agreement that the Earth has entered it’s sixth mass extinction event. Occasionally, approximately every 100 million year or so, a large percentage of existing species die off in a short period of time. The causes of these mass extinctions are varied, collisions with extraterrestrial debris and super volcanos are just a couple of possibilities. For primitive bacteria, it was their own waste product, oxygen, that was almost the end of life on this planet. What makes the current extinction event so unusual is that humans are entirely to blame. And not only are we the cause of this extinction event, we are apparently setting a speed record. Up until now, mass extinctions occurred over thousands of years. In an effort to show we are the equal of any natural process, we are on pace to eliminate 50% of the world’s species within a few hundred years, the blink of an eye in the geologic time scale.

ILLG__U7X2198 Wapusk, Manitoba, Canada

I use the words “natural process” as if our actions were unnatural, and that is not accurate. Our actions are as natural as those of any other creature that crawls, swims or flies, and it is quite possible that humans are merely the next vector for an event whose time has come again. People automatically assume that mass extinctions are terrible occurrences, and they definitely are for species existing at the time of the extinction event. However, for the species that arise after the event, they are a blessing. If not for Chixulub, the comet or asteroid whose collision hastened the end of the dinosaurs, humans would still be nocturnal insectivores, gnawing roaches in the dark. Mammals had their chance to compete directly with dinosaurs, and it did not go well. Between the Cambrian and Mesozoic Periods 95% of the world’s species died off. It was the largest extinction event this planet has known, and it cleared the slate for an evolutionary free-for-all. The ancestors of mammals and dinosaurs competed for dominance on a relatively even playing field, and dinosaurs became the undisputed rulers of the world while mammals never amounted to more than a hairy prey item…until the dinosaurs were removed.

ILLG__U7X1691 MN

One of the interesting things about mass extinction events is that dominant animal groups are removed or severely diminished, and something totally new arises from the rubble to take their place. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals have all had their day. Birds missed out somehow, but maybe their day is still coming. Since there have only been five events so far, we can’t say with certainty that the dominant animal group is always eliminated, but that’s the way it has always happened in the past. If the trend continues, it will be interesting to see which group inherits the mantle of superiority when humans are no more.

ILLG__H2S2102 Pismo Beach

The thing that has me preoccupied with endings and beginnings are recent findings involving a couple of very photogenic species, polar bears and monarch butterflies. It’s no secret that our planet is warming and the polar ice caps are receding drastically. Polar bears are dependent upon ice for their survival. The less ice there is, the fewer polar bears we’ll have. It’s quite possible that refuges will remain in the very far north where polar bears can bide their time till the next Ice Age (the ice will come again), but even places as far north as Svalbard are now reporting ice-free summers. Humans are more directly responsible for the decline in the monarch butterfly population. We have logged the groves where they winter, and we’ve gone to great lengths to elminate the milkweed they depend on. Most recently, the adoption of genetically modified corn, corn that can tolerate huge amounts of pesticide and/or have poisonous pollen, may be the final nail in their coffin. In a matter of decades, the Eastern population has declined by more than 80%. The Pacific population appeared to be slowly recovering or at least remaining stable, but between the winter of 2018 and 2019 80% of the butterflies disppeared. There are non-migratory populations of monarchs that are not affected, but the days of huge, hanging clusters comprised of thousands of monarchs may nearly be gone.

ILLG__H2S2086 Pismo Beach

I know that life will carry on, that someday, perhaps after humans are long gone, new species will arise to take the place of the ones the planet has lost. However, regardless of how or why the extinction takes place, a world without polar bears and masses of monarchs covering branches and entire trees will seem diminished, a less magical place than the one we now live in.

ILLG__U7X0567 California

The Prodigal Son Returns

Horses actually evolved on this continent. They made their way to Asia over the Bering Land Bridge as the first humans were walking the other way into the Americas. These first human immigrants may have had something to do with the extinction of horses here. However, when these animals returned with the conquering Europeans, they had circumnavigated the globe, an extreme case of the prodigal son returning. They were also much larger and more impressive than the dog-sized creatures that evolved here. There's a line in a John Denver song, "I had a vision of eagles and horses, high on a ridge in a race with the wind," and this kept running through my mind for 4 days. We didn't see a lot of eagles, but there were hundreds of wild horses thundering across the grassland. One band after another would come running past us, kicking up clouds of dust. If the scene sounds incredible, it was. In fact, it was photographically magical. The problems, such as they were, arose when the wind blew the dust our way.

Wild horse herd running across dusty prairie

Wild Horses in a Hurry

This part of Northern Utah was once the bed of an enormous inland sea, and the resulting soil forms a deep, talcum powder-like dust. A lone person walking through it creates a knee-high haboob. Our parking spot at the hotel looked like the chalk outline from a crime scene, and a herd of horses can create an almost impenetrable dirty fog that cameras could rarely focus through. The horses themselves were often dim silhouettes, even when the sound of drumming hooves was loud in our ears.

Wild horse herd & sunrise color

Breakfast With a View

Cathy and I have photographed wild horses many times in several different locations, but never have we had opportunities like we did here. For one thing, the numerous bands all stayed fairly close together, creating an enormous herd. Sometimes it took a bit of looking, but when you found the herd, the photography lasted for a long time. And, because there were so many horses clustered together, there was a lot of behavior, including fights. Most of the fights were short, only a couple of kicks, and afterwards the combatants would nuzzle each other like best buds. A couple of the fights however, went on long enough to obscure the battle behind a dust screen, making it almost impossible to tell the color of the fighting horses.

Wild horse stallions fighting

Kicking Up Some Dust

Our first experience with the horses was at a waterhole, and we were photographing from telephoto range to keep from disturbing them as they drank. We were a bit surprised to see them walking towards us after they had finished their drink, and they kept coming closer and closer until they were in wide-angle range unless you wanted face shots. We found that if we waited for the horses to approach us, they would continue right past, often feeding next to us without lifting their heads. I don't know what the horses were thinking. We obviously were not horses because we were far too slow and clumsy and we didn't smell quite right either (that was an understatement after days in the heat).

Wild horse herd

Checking Out The New Guy

Because the horses were so tolerant, we could often position ourselves to take full advantage of the sun and the scenery. A couple of times we were able to incorporate sunrises and sunset clouds with pieces of the herd. Listening to their soft neighs and whinnies as they munched the dry grass, made me want to respond in their own language, but I could only give thanks I was even privy to the conversation. It’s not something many people can say, and the magic didn’t stop there. The horses and the wild landscape took us back in time more than a century, and we were able to capture scenes from a West that disappeared long ago.

Wild horses & sunset clouds

Sunset Trail

Few creatures are the center of such intense debate as wild horses, but these rugged western landscapes would come up lacking without the thundering herds high on a ridge in a race with the wind.