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Friday, January 27, 2023

Gaia on the Move: the Rise of the Savanna Monkeys

This text had already been published as an appendix to a longer post on the evolution of forests. It is republished here as a stand-alone post on the role of humans in the evolution of the world's forests (link to the image above)

Primates are arboreal creatures that evolved in the warm environment of the Eocene forests. They used tree branches as a refuge, and they could adapt to various kinds of food. Modern primates do not shy from hunting other species, maybe even ancient primates did the same. From the viewpoint of these ancient primates, the shrinking of the area occupied by tropical forests that started with the "Grande Coupure," some 30 million years ago, was a disaster. They were not equipped to live in savannas: they were slow on the ground: an easy lunch for the powerful predators of the time. Primates also never colonized the northern taiga. Most likely, it was not because they couldn't live in cold environments (some modern monkeys can do that), but because they couldn't cross the "mammoth steppe" that separated the Tropical forests from the Northern forests. If some of them tried, the local carnivores made sure that they didn't succeed. So, "boreal monkeys" do not exist (actually, there is one, shown in the picture, but it is not exactly a monkey!).  

Eventually, monkeys were forced to move into the savanna. During the Pleistocene, about 4 million years ago, the Australopithecines appeared in Africa, (image source). We may call them the first "savanna monkeys." In parallel, perhaps a little later, another kind of savanna monkey, the baboon, also evolved in Africa. In the beginning, australopithecines and baboons were probably practicing similar living techniques, but in time they developed into very different species. The baboons still exist today as a rugged and adaptable species that, however, never developed the special characteristics of australopithecines that turned them into humans. The first creatures that we classify as belonging to the genus Homo, the homo habilis, appeared some 2.8 million years ago. They were also savanna dwellers. 

This branch of savanna monkeys won the game of survival by means of a series of evolutionary innovations. They increased their body size for better defense, they developed an erect stance to have a longer field of view, they super-charged their metabolism by getting rid of their body hair and using profuse sweating for cooling, they developed complex languages to create social groups for defense against predators, and they learned how to make stone tools adaptable to different situations. Finally, they developed a tool that no animal on Earth had mastered before: fire. Over a few hundred thousand years, they spread all over the world from their initial base in a small area of Central Africa. The savanna monkeys, now called "Homo sapiens," were a stunning evolutionary success. The consequences on the ecosystem were enormous.

First, the savanna monkeys exterminated most of the megafauna. The only large mammals that survived the onslaught were those living in Africa, perhaps because they evolved together with the australopithecines and developed specific defense techniques. For instance, the large ears of the African elephant are a cooling system destined to make elephants able to cope with the incredible stamina of human hunters. But in Eurasia, North America, and Australia, the arrival of the newcomers was so fast and so unexpected that most of the large animals were wiped out. 

By eliminating the megaherbivores, the monkeys had, theoretically, given a hand to the competitors of grass, forests, which now had an easier time encroaching on grassland without seeing their saplings trampled. But the savanna monkeys had also taken the role of megaherbivores. They used fires with great efficiency to clear forests to make space for the game they hunted. Later, as they developed metallurgy, the monkeys were able to cut down entire forests to make space for the cultivation of the grass species that they had domesticated meanwhile: wheat, rice, maize, oath, and many others. 

But the savanna monkeys were not necessarily enemies of the forests. In parallel to agriculture, they also managed entire forests as food sources. The story of the chestnut forests of North America is nearly forgotten today but, about one century ago, the forests of the region were largely formed of chestnut trees planted by Native Americans as a source of food (image source). By the start of the 20th century, the chestnut forest was devastated by the "chestnut blight," a fungal disease that came from China. It is said that some 3-4 billion chestnut trees were destroyed and, now, the chestnut forest doesn't exist anymore. The American chestnut forest is not the only example of a forest managed, or even created, by humans. Even the Amazon rainforest, sometimes considered an example of a "natural" forest, shows evidence of having been managed by the Amazonian Natives in the past as a source of food and other products. 

The action of the savanna monkeys was always massive and, in most cases, it ended in disaster. Even the oceans were not safe from the monkeys: they nearly managed to exterminate the baleen whales, turning large areas of the oceans into deserts. On land, entire forests were razed to the ground. Desertification ensued, brought upon by "megadroughts" when the rain cycle was no more controlled by the forests. Even when the monkeys spared a forest, they often turned it into a monoculture, subjected to be destroyed by pests, as the case of the American chestnuts shows. Yet, in a certain sense, the monkeys were making a favor to forests. Despite the huge losses to saws and hatchets, they never succeeded in completely exterminating a tree species, although some are critically endangered nowadays. 

The most important action of the monkeys was their habit of burning sedimented carbon species that had been removed from the ecosphere long before. The monkeys call these carbon species "fossil fuels" and they have been going on an incredible burning bonanza using the energy stored in this ancient carbon without the need of going through the need of the slow and laborious photosynthesis process. In so doing, they raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to levels that had not been seen for tens of millions of years before. That was welcome food for the trees, which are now rebounding from their former distressful situation during the Pleistocene, reconquering some of the lands they had lost to grass. In the North of Eurasia, the Taiga is expanding and gradually eliminating the old mammoth steppe. Areas that today are deserts are likely to become green. We are already seeing the trend in the Sahara desert. 

What the savanna monkeys could do was probably a surprise for Gaia herself, who must be now scratching her head and wondering what has happened to her beloved Earth. And what's going to happen, now?  There are several possibilities, including a cataclysmic extinction of most vertebrates, or perhaps all of them. Or, perhaps, a new burst of evolution could replace them with completely new life forms. What we can say is that evolution is turbo-charged in this phase of the existence of planet Earth. Changes will be many and very rapid. Not necessarily pleasant for the existing species but, as always, Gaia knows best. 


  1. My own research suggests that humans evolved as keystone ecological engineers; and although they may have had a role in killing off megafauna I doubt it was a major one. It was not, I would suggest, inevitable that the “savanna monkeys” would cause ecological crisis, species extinctions, and climate change, however... because the behaviour that led to all those very negative outcomes are LEARNED/shared in savanna monkeys... in other words, they are an attribute of cultural rather than innate biological behaviours. And the worse of these destructive behaviours emerged as city states and “civilization emerged, and especially after the commercial motive began to dominate these particular cultures. - Helga

  2. What might be the next grand-scale task for the savannah monkeys?
    Not a question, really; just wondering out loud...