The article tells the story of Brian Silliman: a biologist who was studying food webs in a saltmarsh on a Georgia island. While performing field work at night, Silliman had a frightening encounter with an alligator that tried to attack him.
For Silliman, one of the most unsettling aspects of this experience was that alligators were not ‘supposed’ to be there: the saltmarsh should have been too salty for them. But it turns out that the saltmarsh Silliman was working in was home to many alligators.
Subsequent research revealed that predators such as mountain lions, sea otters, grey wolves, river otters, and more are turning up in ‘new’ habitats. However, Silliman and his colleagues have concluded that these species are actually returning to ecosystems that they inhabited in the past – before being chased out by humans.
This has important implications. For one, it suggests that biologists may have been unnecessarily restricting the habitat ranges for some predatory animals. As a result, there may be more opportunities to recover species like sea otters than previously thought.
Silliman also suggested that the adaptability of some predators means that human-wildlife coexistence may not always be impossible. It appears that certain species may be able share the landscapes we inhabit – if we let them. Silliman acknowledged that this will not work for all species and locations, but it will for some.
Given the expanding influence of humans on the biosphere, and the steady decline of many of the Earth’s predators, all opportunities for human-wildlife coexistence should be seized upon. The future may depend on learning to live, safely, with species we have previously chosen not to tolerate.
Are the ghosts of nature’s past haunting ecology today? – Silliman et al. (2018).