I have to admit that I’ve been that I have become a bit obsessed with savannas over the last few years. I’ll provide a little background information on savannas, and who knows? Maybe you’ll become obsessed as well!
A savanna is a grass and tree ecosystem whose trees are spaced out enough that the canopy does not close. Because the trees are so spaced out, a lot of direct and filtered sunlight can reach the ground (actually, it reaches the wide variety of plants growing in the soil). This results in an extremely diverse ecosystem, and the savanna is said to be the most highly productive ecosystem on land.
Through the pioneering work of many individuals (Allan Savory is probably the most well-known), we know that savannas may be our only hope of healing the land, but they optimally function only when there are large herbivores on the land. And the key to savannas’ sustainability in a wild system has to do with the relationship of predators and prey as I discussed in my previous article, Lessons from a Safari. To summarize, the predators keep the large herbivores bunched (a.k.a. “mobbed” together). This mobbing concentrates the grazing, trampling, manure and urine deposits on the ground. The constant moving of the herd provides a recovery period before the animals return.Unfortunately, most savanna ecosystems have a shortage or complete absence of large predators.
In modern times, the savanna is mimicked with domesticated animals in place of wild herbivores, mobile electric fencing instead of predators, and plants beneficial to the animals (the pastures/grasslands) and humans in the system (the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants provide food, textiles, medicine, fuel wood, etc.). There are many examples of using these systems to repair completely degraded land while providing a profitable farm income.
Some cultures have developed long-term relationships with savannas, and have used these systems for thousands of years. These systems are also known as agrosilvopasture (agricultural + silva (Latin for forest) + pasture). The one I am most familiar with, due to my time living in Portugal and visiting Spain, is the dehesa system of the central and southern Iberian Peninsula. These systems produce many products:
- meat from grazing animals
- meat from foraging pigs (including the world famous and delicious jamón ibérico or presunto ibérico)
- meat from wild game
- income from hunting wild animals
- cork (truly sustainably harvested from cork oak – aside: please support companies that use real cork in their wine bottles)
- other wood products
- fuel wood
- habitat for a wide range of animals including endangered species
- and more!
I know that there are a lot of big names in the world of sustainable and regenerative agriculture that are talking about savannas, but I think this is way more than just a trendy topic. I feel like savanna systems are the future of truly sustainable and truly regenerative land management systems. My long-term goal is to recreate a savanna system similar to this in the United States. I am currently looking for land right now. As I share my dream with friends, farmers, or real-estate agents, I often get a very confused look. Most people are familiar with the savannas of Africa. When I explain the silvopasture system, a few understand how this has worked in Europe. But savannas in North America?
I explain that at the beginning of every Permaculture project, we need to gather information. This includes the obvious USDA Zone, rainfall, sun angles, shade areas, etc. It also includes taking stock of the current ecosystem, i.e. the animal and plant life on the land. In addition, we want to gather as much historical information about the land. When were the last floods? Droughts? What was the land’s use over the last decade? What was its use over the last hundred years?
Now what if we go back even further? What if we go back 20,000 years? We would find ourselves toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. During the Pleistocene, we would find that glaciers stretched as far south as Chicago. The remainder of the North American continent was savanna (and also some significant wetland and coastal ecosystems). Studying these savannas can give us key insights into our current flora and fauna, but it can also give us inspiration while designing our modern agricultural systems.
Our land in North America is suited to savanna ecosystems. I firmly believe that if we convert our land to savannas we will regenerate our land, restore our wildlife and watersheds, produce healthier food, and create lucrative incomes for farmers. The remainder of this article will outline some of the amazing fauna (animals) that existed in these North American savannas.
For a great look at some of the unique flora (plants) from the Pleistocene savannas of North America, I highly recommend Whit Bronaugh’s article, The Trees the Miss the Mammoths.
Megafauna of North America
Megafauna is a term that refers to large or “giant” animals. These large animals are almost entirely extinct. There are a number of theories why these animals died out, but climate change and human predation are the two leading theories. I think it was likely a combination of multiple factors.
This list is large, but not all-inclusive. It is meant to give a general overview of the animals that once roamed North America.
HERBIVORES AND NON-PREDATORY OMNIVORES
1. Peccaries: There were a few species of Peccary in North America. These also resemble pigs, and there is one, the Collared Peccary, that is still living in the southwestern United States. The two most notable extinct Peccaries are the Flat-Headed Peccary (Platygonus genus) which was about 3 feet long (1 meter) and 100 pounds (45 kg). The Long-Nose Peccary (Mylohyus) was a bit larger weighing 150 pounds (68 kg).
2. Tapirs (Tapirus species): Many people are familiar with Tapirs, because they are at almost every zoo I have ever visited. They look like a long-nosed pig, and they live in the forests/jungles of South and Central America and Southeast Asia. The Tapirs of North America were probably very similar to the modern Tapirs.
3. Ground Sloths: There are over 80 genera of ground sloth. Some of these “Giant Sloths” grew to over 17 feet (5.2 meters) tall and weighed over 5 tons (4,500 kg)! These were not the small, sedentary, tree-living sloths of today!
4. Giant Beaver (Castoroides): The Giant Beaver was a very large rodent. It resembled the modern-day beaver, but it weighed 130-220 pounds (60-100 kg) and was over 8 feet (2.4 meters) long! The Giant Beaver ranged from Alaska to Florida. It is very interesting that multiple Native American tribes have myths of giant beavers. Makes you wonder if they really are myths or just old histories.
5. Llama (Lama glama): The Llamas of today are the same ones that used to roam North America. They migrated to from North America to South America where they continued to thrive after the North American Llamas died out. Due to importation, there are now over 150,000 Llamas in North America again. Llamas grow to 5.5-6 feet (1.7-1.9 meters) tall and weigh 280-450 pounds (130-200 kg). Llamas have a long history as a meat, fiber, and pack animal.
6. Camel (Camelops): These camels were likely very similar to the modern Bactrain (double-humped) camels of today. Although because soft tissue does not fossilize, we do not know if the Camelops had one, two, or no humps! The largest species were estimated to stand 7-9 feet (2-2.7 meters) tall at the shoulder and weighed up to 2,600 pounds (1,200 kg). Some scientists think the hump was originally used not for water storage in the desert, but as insulation from the cold.
7. Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica): I have to admit that this animal completely amazed me. It is still living! The Saiga Antelope once inhabited North America and most of the central Europe and Asia. Sadly, it now lives in a small area of Russia, Kazakstan, Kalmykia, and Mongolia, and there are less than 100,000 animals remaining. The Saiga stands 2-2.5 feet (0.6–0.8 meters) at the shoulder and weighs between 80-140 pounds (36 and 63 kg). It is truly an otherworldly creature!
9. Horse (Equus genus): There are over 50 species of horse that live during the Pleistocene in North America. Some of these were much smaller than today’s horses, and some likely were more Zebra-like. They all seemed to be variations on the horse theme, and none of them were much larger than modern horses. But it does seem that our modern horse did originate in North America, crossing land bridges to Asia before becoming extinct in North America.
10. Stag-Moose (Cervalces scotti): The Stag-Moose had characteristics of both a stag (Deer) and a Moose. It grew to over 8 feet (2.5 meters) tall and a weighed over 1,500 pounds (680 kg). It was a bit larger than a modern Moose, but the antlers of a deer or elk. They appear to have lived in the wetlands of Canada to Arkansas, again living up to its name of Moose.
11. Shrub Ox (Euceratherium collinum): This large bovid grew to over 1,300 pounds (590 kg) and lived in North America from California to Illinois (at least). Scientists have been able to examine its fossilized dung, and determined that it from both grass and tree. A perfect example of a savanna animal!
12. Woodland Muskox (Bootherium bombifrons): This was a very widespread bovid in North America living from Alaska to New Jersey and as far south as Texas. It was similar in appearance to the living Tundra Muskox, but it was a warmer-climate species.
13. Bison: There were four species of Bison in North America: Bison antiquus, Bison latifrons, Bison occidentalis, Bison priscus, and all were large, herbivorous herding animals. These extinct Bison species likely resembled the Bison of today (American Bison and Wood Bison), although some species were quite a bit larger. Bison antiquus was about 25% larger than modern Bison and Bison latifrons grew to 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) at the shoulder and weighed over 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms)! It may be the largest bovid that ever lived!
14. Mammoth (Mammuthus genus): There were a number of Mammoth species that roamed North America. The largest grew to over 13 feet at the shoulder (4 meters) and weighed over 9 tons (8,100 kg)! Based on a lot of research, it appears that Mammoths were very similar to modern day elephants. Mammoths ate grasses, shrubs, trees, and cacti. The last remaining species of Mammoth was likely the Wooly Mammoth, at there is reliable evidence that they living until 1650 BC!
15. Mastodon (Mammut): The Mastadons were smaller, stouter, more muscled elephant-like animals that appeared to live more in the forest than in the grasslands. They grew to over 9 feet (2.8 meters) at the shoulder and weighed over 5 tons (4,500 kg). Mastodons lived from Alaska to Florida and central Mexico.
1. Teratorn (Teratornithidae family): The name Teratornis is Greek for “monster bird”, and these large birds of prey lived up to their name… of course, we named them well after they became extinct, but you understand what I am trying to say. There were at least five species of Teratorns, and the species in North America grew to over 50 pounds (23 kg), which is moderately heaver for a flying bird, but they had a wingspan of over 18 feet (5.5 meters). A South American relative may have had a wingspan of over 25 feet (7.6 meters)! Comparing their beaks to modern-day birds, it is likely that the Teratorns were hunters and not scavengers.
2. Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus genus): The Short-Faced Bear was one of the largest mammalian predators on land. They stood up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) when standing on their hind legs, and 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall at the shoulder when walking, and they weighed over 2,000 pounds (900 kg). Scientists still cannot decide what or how the Short-Faced Bear ate or hunted. Some think it stole food from actively hunting animals like the smaller wolves and cats, but others think they actively hunted prey on their own. Either way, they were a common predator, ranging from Alaska to Mississippi.
3. Dire Wolves (Canis dirus): The Dire Wolves were the largest of all Canis species. While they were about the same size as the modern Gray Wolf, they weighed quite a bit more (up to 175 pounds/80 kg) and had larger teeth. Dire Wolves lived in forests and savannas and ranged from Alberta, Canada to Bolivia, and from Florida to California.It is highly likely that Dire Wolves lived in packs like modern Canis species.
4. American Lion (Panthera leo atrox): Yes, America used to have lions! The American Lion, also known as the American Cave Lion, may be the largest cat to ever exist in the world, and it roamed the Americas from Alaska to Peru. The American Cave Lion stood 4 feet (1.2 meters) at the shoulder, stretched over 8 feet (2.5 meters) long, and weighed almost 800 pounds (350 kg). They looked like super-sized African Lions; however, the American Lion lived in much colder weather and probably used caves to escape the Winter cold.
5. American Cheetah (Miracinonyx): And yes, America also had cheetahs! The American Cheetah was very similar to the well-known African Cheetah, just larger. They weighed about 150 pounds (70 kg) and stood almost 3 feet (0.9 meters) at the shoulder. Very little is actually known about the American Cheetah, but their behavior was probably very much the same as the African Cheetah. Many scientists believe the American Proghorn is so fast, reaching 60 miles per hour, due to being hunted by the equally fast American Cheetah.
6. Saber-Toothed Cats (Smilodon, Homotherium): The saber-toothed cats (wrongly called Saber-Toothed Tigers) were large, predatory cats with unusually large canine teeth. The Homotherium genus contained over a dozen species and grew to almost 500 pounds (225 kg). But the most well known of the saber-toothed cats, although many people wouldn’t know its name, were the Smilodons. This genus of saber-toothed hunter had at least three species. Smilodon populator rivals the American Lion for the largest cat, and some believe it grew to 880 pounds (400 kg)! Smilodons lived in savannas and forests, and they specialized in hunting large herbivores.
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