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9 January 2019

Hell pigs and mega-elephants: Europe’s forgotten wildlife

Once upon a time, Europe’s animal kingdom was as diverse as Africa’s.

By Mark Cocker

Here are two authors that delight in big-picture natural history but viewed from opposite ends of the telescope, so to speak. The plant biologist Ken Thompson is interested in the botanical research that lay behind the biggest picture of them all – the “book that”, in his words, “explains everything”: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

What intrigues Thompson is not just the vast scope of its author’s vision, but how he assembled his ideas from painstaking details acquired over years of forensic investigation. Darwin never made any great claim to be a plant expert, but this book illuminates how the Victorian scientist’s groundbreaking studies on climbing and carnivorous forms of vegetation, including grape vines and the Venus flytrap, revolutionalised several branches of botany. This short book is a delightful introduction to these extraordinary plants and brings the natural science right up to date, while also offering insight into Darwin’s pioneering work.

The Australian author and palaeontologist Tim Flannery is a leading authority on almost all aspects of natural history in his native region. He has also written a gloriously sweeping account of the North American continent from earliest times (The Eternal Frontier, 2001). Now he has produced a very similar work, but with attention switched to a completely different part of the planet. This place is home to 741 million citizens – a tenth of all humanity – on just a 15th of the Earth’s land surface, and has, in turn, been more heavily modified than anywhere except perhaps south-east Asia. It is our place: Europe.

Flannery recounts the present fallen condition of the continent’s fauna and flora – the loss, for instance, of 421 million birds in the 30 years to 2009, largely because of intensive agriculture, and the affliction of almost every common native tree with either a disease or parasite introduced by human agency. But the book’s primary theme is how we have arrived at our present circumstances over millions of years of environmental churn.

Some of Europe’s oldest geological formations are three billion years old, but the narrative really takes shape from the Cretaceous period onwards (roughly 142 to 65 million years ago), when the continent was drifting north as a sequence of islands, separated from Africa by the Tethys Sea. Dinosaurs had many millions of years of residence during this time, but already there were creatures and plants in existence that still count modern Europe as home, including the caviar-producing sturgeon, the midwife toad, the salamander, and that creator of delicious shade in almost every Greek village square, the oriental plane tree.

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Along with all this natural science, Flannery is a great lover of human story. As he sifts the fossil records to describe Europe’s evolving biological patterns, he inserts lovely digressive sketches on the more colourful of his scientific forebears. None is more colourful perhaps, than a Romanian eccentric called Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvás, who once sought to invade Albania with a private army and have himself installed as its king. At his life’s end in 1933, Nopcsa slumped into a fatal depression and was eventually cremated, as Flannery notes, in his motorcycling leathers. This was after he had shot himself and his Albanian lover with a pistol. Yet Nopcsa was also a brilliant palaeontologist whose early work on Romanian dinosaur remains shaped all subsequent study of these giant reptiles.

Another great delight of the book is its author’s gift for surprising the reader with the sheer strangeness of our continent’s past inhabitants. Take, for example, an animal known as a chalicothere, a beast with a head somewhat like that of its relative the horse, but with a gorilla-like body and long sharp claws. Weirder still was the entelodont. Better named as a “hell pig”, it was a type of carnivorous mammal from Asia that was as big as a bull and had facials warts the size and shape of a human penis.

All of these relics from a lost past allow the reader to appreciate that ours was once a wilderness as unique and strange as any region left on Earth. In fact during the Miocene period (24 to 5.5 million years ago) Europe had almost as diverse a mammal fauna as exists on the African savannas today. It may well also have been the birthplace for creatures as emphatically exotic as antelopes, giraffes and okapis. Equally, our version of the elephant, a kind of super-pachyderm called deinotheres, could weigh as much as 15 tonnes and was the biggest land mammal ever to walk the planet. Imagine one of those strolling through the limestone hills that now underlie Paris.

From about the same period in our past arose another unbelievable European creature – a blind, pink, cave-dwelling salamander, individuals of which were known to survive 12 years without eating and had a lifespan of around 100 years. We know the details about this Miocene marvel, because – weirdest of all – the olm, as it is known, still exists in the karst-limestone valleys of Slovenia.

It is the continuities between Europe’s remote past and the present dispensation that are the most affecting and startling parts in this book of revelations; and none more so than the legacy bequeathed to the present by our earliest ape-like ancestors. Flannery reveals how the most recent archaeological finds are completely reshaping any understanding of human origins. It is our continent that is now thought to have given rise to the first hominids, the first bipedal apes and possibly the first gorillas.

What is more troubling is the striking coincidence between the appearance of fully modern humans in Europe and the cascade of extinctions that ensued. It looks more than likely that our ancestors directly caused the disappearance of various species of rhinoceros, the cave bear and the woolly mammoth. Neanderthals may also have met their nemesis in Homo sapiens. For once, however, there is mitigating evidence – that for several thousand years those last two species interbred and modern Europeans contain a tiny residue of Neanderthal genes.

In the final chapters of the book Flannery opens his panorama even wider to speculate upon the directions which wildlife on this overcrowded continent might take in the future. Needless to say it is our species’ sheer abundance and almost inadvertent capacity to shoulder aside every other life form that gives him pause for thought. Yet even at the book’s close he retains his capacity for surprises.

He points out that Europe, for all its biological shrinkage, supports more wolves today than the entire US including Alaska. All the predictions on land use suggest that we may also have more room for wolves, bears, bison, beavers and lynx, because by 2030 there could be 30 million hectares of abandoned farmland, amid increased urbanisation. It is an area the size of all Italy – a country where the process is already accelerating.

Just in case we are getting comfortable, Flannery produces his final shock. If Europeans think small, he says, we will stumble along in a humanised and intensively managed landscape poisoned by agrochemicals and waste plastic. Should we think big we could resurrect the woolly mammoth and the auroch – Europe’s extraordinary vanished bovid – and for good measure find space for elephants and lions. After all, why should Africans be left to bear responsibility for the world’s most magnificent megafauna? We need to be more generous, he says. Now there’s a thought for the new year.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today
Ken Thompson
Profile, 256pp, £10.99

Europe: A Natural History
Tim Flannery
Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown