Andrew Zhuravlev "Wild, totally wild" ("Paradox" magazine # 9/2003)
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WILD,
TOTALLY WILD

The cover of Paradox magazine where this article had been first published in September, 2003.
The ironic Russian idiom "wonder in feathers" in title means any nonsensical and ridiculous thing.

Andrey Zhuravlev

 

DR. SCI. BIOL. ANDREY ZHURAVLEV, THE MEMBER OF THE BRITISH COMMITTEE OF NATURAL SOURCES HAS FORMULATED OUR ANSWER TO AUTHORS OF “THE FUTURE IS WILD”.

Prediction of the future is ungrateful occupation. The most popular, but also the most abuse in public TV presenters are weather forecasters. Their forecast should precisely describe changes of weather in the nearest day, but it only occasionally coincides with a next day view from the window.
It is much easier to predict the events will take place after 5 million, 100 million or even 200 million years. There will be nobody to check up a prophecy. Therefore numerous collective of creators of book, Internet site and, probably, a computer series “The Future is Wild: a natural history of the future” turned out in very advantageous position. Besides the forecasts submitted in this book, “base exclusively on science” according to authors, and authors are burdened with various ranks and degrees. However all the same it is possible to make sure of something: there happened almost everything that could happen for almost four billion years of existence of life on Earth. By the way, authors of “The Future is Wild” also permanently address to the past, whence take both giants insects and a climate of the future Pangea-2 supercontinent. To tell the truth, they use such adoptions rather clumsily. For example, it is told about a climate of Pangea-2, to which present day continents should merge after 200 million years (possible), that such event “never happened on Earth during all its history”. “Inside the continent, thousand kilometers far from ocean, the fruitless Central Desert lays. Here the average temperature changes from +50°С in summer up to –30°С in winter...” So, and what never-happened things are here? All this is literally copied from the book “Pangea: evolution of supercontinent and its consequence for Earth paleoclimate and conditions of sedimentation” (1994), also with gross blunders. 220 million years ago the significant part of Pangea was located near the South Pole, and Pangea-2 should appear in equatorial zone; that assumes not so severe climate, not mentioning the fact that climate and first of all humidity in depth of continent depend not only on oceanic processes, but also on species structure of algae living in ocean and character of forests growing on land. Therefore it had changed so sharply from the end of Carboniferous up to middle Triassic, and everything happened within the borders of the same Pangea!

GREAT BLUE WINDRUNNERS, the descendants of recent cranes, till the next 100 million years will acquire the second pair of wings in order to maneuver at low speed.

FLISHES, that will descend from cod fishes, will master flight. For this purpose its pectoral fins will turn to wings. To have an opportunity for flish to fly up from water surface, its tail fin will change the structure becoming like whale’s one.


* Famous Soviet and Russian sci-fi writers. The mentioned book “Monday begins in Saturday” is the humoristic novel with elements of fantasy and folk tales - translator’s note.

Even for scientist authors all these factors appeared too difficultly to envisage, therefore their future is more similar to the picture described by Arcady and Boris Strugatsky* in their book “Monday begins in Saturday”: “…any people dressed only partially had been permanently met: for example, in green hat and red jacket on naked body (and no more); I was confused until I had recalled that some authors are in the habit to write something like “door opened, and on the threshold the harmonous muscled man in shaggy cap and dark glasses had appeared”. It’s very exact characteristic of monsters of “The Future is Wild”.
Each monster, even most plausibly fabricated, is brought up by authors in hothouse conditions of incubator. In real inland communities it would not appear any chance to appear to them. In Earth history the period of huge arthropods also took place: approximately 320 million years ago dragonflies of 80 centimeters wingspan flied, opilionids on half-meter legs walked, two-meter long millipedes crawled. To make such picture a reality at least two factors had worked: absence of competitors from the part of vertebrates at them and the increased level of oxygen contents in atmosphere. Outside of dense oxygen-rich atmosphere the respiratory system of overgrown arthropods will not work. But when running, climbing and flying vertebrates settled on land, any changes in composition of air (for example, at the end of Cretaceous period – the beginning of Cenozoic era) did not help insects and their relatives any more. They will not help also in the future. We don’t mention also that authors had easily and cheerfully bypassed a problem of occurrence of superfluous oxygen. In Carboniferous about which we speak, surplus of oxygen had been formed due to failure in circulation of organic substances: chemical compounds appeared, which had been too hard for former destructor organisms, and new groups of destructors, probably, had not appeared. After their appearing “superfluous” oxygen had been quickly called for oxidation of decomposed organic material. In the future the similar concurrence of set of the events favorable for giant arthropods seems too incredible. It hardly is worthy to expect of the appearing of any monster wasps even after 100 million years.

* Translator’s note for English readers: it is the phrase from humoristic monologue about the price of crayfish: “Yesterday’s ones were large, but cost five roubles. And today’s ones cost three roubles, but they’re small. But they are today”.

Equally easily authors draw the reef community of 100-million-year “futureness”. And it is again without any look back at the past. “Futurist” biologists imagine new reef system this way: increase of the contents of nutrients favours to flowering of red algae, and overgrown nudibranch mollusks pollinating them develop, serving as a food for siphonophoras (that had “cost of five roubles, but yesterday”*). Actually the increased contents of nutrients results in abundance of phytoplankton which intercepts them at benthic communities (including algae) and simultaneously, breeding in huge amounts, lowers the water transparency. Therefore reeves in such periods are building by sponges – filtrating organisms not requiring for good light exposure, but not by calciferous algae. Red algae with strongly expressed sexual process exist not less than 1,2 billion years; for this time they have not got flowers; they will not blossom also in next 100 million years. Flowers are necessary for ground plants which should be pollinated outside of water environment. Large durophagous predators (“phage” in Greek means “devourer”, and first half of word means ones had not manage to evade from them) are really characteristic for time of largest reeves. But for this purpose the ecosystem should consist of multiply species which are built in longest chain where each subsequent link is larger and eats representatives of the previous smaller link. As a result right at the end of chain we receive an armoured fish of 9-meter length (380 million years ago), 14-meter ichthyosaurus (200 million years ago) or the favourite character of film “Jaws” (50 million years ago).

After next 200 million years squids will move on land and will turn to SQUIBBONS. They will move tumbling on the ground, but eyes located on muscled stalks will constantly stay in centre of gravity at such tumbling and will always look forward. Squibbons will live in groups and build rather simple nests on top tree branches. By their intelligence they’ll be closest to humans.


And any monster taken into account appears the paper tiger. Well, by what reason cephalopods will crawl on land if it had not happen 400-420 million years ago? And you may see they also had not competitors on land there, and shell serving as a support and damp shelter in case of drying, was at them. Octopuses more than 150 million years evolve to the direction of skeletonless sea creatures which are already impossible to be rebuild to forest partisans. How will the tortoise turn to the hundred-ton monster? Tortoises never increased their weight over one ton. A problem of size is much more difficult to be removed, than the carapace. Analogies to dinosaurs (the limited weight of which, by the way, is estimated to 80 and even to 35 tons) are inappropriate here. Dinosaurs at first had solved a problem of support and breath, and then began to increase weight. Ancestors of tortoises had gone in other way: the carapace had formed a framework protecting thorax from squeezing. Otherwise they could not walk and breathe simultaneously. And protection is important, but by-effect of this design. After disappearance of predators it will not be easier to breathe, and the 120-ton armourless tortoise, besides eating up to 600 kg of vegetation per day (why will this cold-blooded one consume so much?), is a strange invention of the authors, considering themselves as experts in biomechanics and physiology.
And how to receive treelike forests from lichens at their rates of growth (no more than 5 centimeters per year)? They are not casually distributed only in places where they have completely no competitors, the higher plants. And again, such thing hadn’t happened 420 million years ago when their contenders still had not mastered land in full degree. Giant mushrooms, 70 centimeters in diameter, had appeared then (and also had quickly came to naught), and treelike lichens never appeared. Also it will not happen. Actively flying fishes will not appear. Adaptations to flight arose repeatedly (insects, some thecodonts, pterosaurs, nowadays living fan-tailed birds and lizard-tailed birds unrelated to them), but always at overland organisms. Flight develops as strategy of those ones who catches up. Above ocean open spaces, if to remove birds, nobody will be hunted, and if to leave birds, the competition never will develop for the benefit of fishes, the beginning flyers.
Authors of “The Future is Wild” had completely excluded from their constructions also the fact that species evolve in communities instead of in themselves. They had completely ignored also that in evolutionary transformations of any group of organisms there are their own rules as Nikolay Vavilov has established in the beginning of XX century. The history of fossil communities not casually indicates that to change the extinct species very similar one usually comes, and frequently related to it (but not any monster). This way rather steady systems, existing millions years, are formed. Parallelisms in development, which western scientists usually avoid to discuss (also not only in this book), are peculiar to alive systems in general, in other words, to related groups of organisms. In several lines of the certain group of reptiles key features of mammals formed independently, also independently in other group of reptiles attributes of birds gathered, and among gymnospermous plants attributes of flowering ones did. Even features of man of modern type developed independently in different lines of orthograde primates. All these laws prompt, for example, that a niche of birds, under condition of their total extinction, will be occupied by new feathery or scaly creatures arisen from skipping or tree-climbing reptiles, but in any way not from fishes.
In essence, creators of “The Future is Wild” use exclusively images of modern and prehistoric organisms, for what those ones are “dismembered” and as if exchange their parts. However thus the level of development of organisms remains constant and more – less modern. Though all history of development of life on Earth testifies to constant increase of energy of all live beings. Russian paleontologist Alexander Rautian rather exactly and wittily said that the Paleozoic world, as opposed to Mesozoic one, moved at walk. For the last of 600 million years not only speeds of movement of animals have increased, but also significantly, especially during Mesozoic and Cenozoic, their ability to a filtration, processing of deposits, an opportunity of protection and an attack has amplified, a variety, both general (global) and local (within the limits of the certain communities) has sharply jumped up. Probably, at the overcoming of present day ecological crisis all these tendencies will renew also in the future. Authors had undertaken to untwist the geological annals in return side: a congelation – Messenian crisis (the shallowing of Mediterranean Sea) – Triassic Pangea, – having populated the Earth of the future with the organisms of the past.
On the average creators of “The Future is Wild” had heaped up one gross blunder to every page, not taking into account any small flaws. Like isolated South America at the moment of extreme lowering of sea level. Or like the grassland fires destroying trees to please to grasses. Excuse me, but what about scrubs (thickets of trees and bushes) of Australia, where eucalypti are adapted to survive in periodic fiery waves not worse as local grasses? Authors have slow twisting rivers flowing on abrupt slopes, and pollen of plants flies from South America to Australia against the wind direction. And the main reason of rising of sea level was... the expansion of water at heating. And all glatio- and tectonoeustasies are out of attention! (First of these terms connects change of sea level to the condition of icecaps, and the second with the volume of mid-oceanic ridges.) Unfortunately, the newest word in “science” had not get any value, but meanwhile it is interesting to know, what volume of water can be added due to its expansion.
Scenes of global extinctions also are too far-fetched. Last congelation, for example, if it caused an effect to evolution of Homo sapiens, caused it only to the side positive for it. It had allowed it to deal with other real competitor for place on Earth – with Neanderthal man. It is surprising that Neanderthal men were better adapted to life in frosty climate, but their small populations, isolated as a result of approach of glaciers, were, probably, partly assimilated, and generally exterminated by hordes of Homo sapiens which have intruded to Europe. So, the danger of winterkilling threatens to it at the least degree.
By the way, we still live in ice age, and the science is not capable to give the plausible forecast: will it become warmer or colder the nearest centuries. Even if to assume, that carbonic gas is the basic heater of modern atmosphere (not all scientists agree with it), the level of its contents in atmosphere depends on set of the reasons: rates of orogenic processes, pattern of volcanic activity, productivity of oceanic phytoplankton, species structure of phytoplankton, features of ground vegetation, but not just of amounts of organic fuel burnt by people.
Till only last five years each of these factors had taken the leading place, but the clear picture of climate of the near future had not developed yet. Forces and means of modern science are simply not enough for similar forecasts .
It is possible to tell evidently only, that so power-intensive species, as the human species is, can not exist for a long time because of limitation of resources. Everything that people consume as a raw material is created by former ecosystems in unique and frequently unrepeatable conditions. Sooner or later, having lost the source of raw materials, the mankind is doomed. And only in some thousand years no one ape species will live on Earth. From the stock of feral cattle the ecosystem of grassland type (because grasses are more adapted to present rather low contents carbon dioxide in atmosphere) will start to restore. In human time semi-feral mustang horses have taken a place of bisons in prairies, and also their own one in some extent (their horse ancestors lived there). Ecosystems of tundra, taiga, semideserts and deserts will revive in former condition. Congelations and warmings will shift their borders, but will not cause any mass extinctions likewise they did not cause them in past (again on contrary to statements of authors of the book). And if patches tropical rainforest and reeves will be kept, they also will restore though in strongly impoverished condition. But the only thing will never appear on planet is an intelligent life.

Translated by Pavel Volkov,
Vladimir, 2009

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