Living Sanibel: Man oh man: It’s up to us
Modern mitochondrial DNA evidence indicates that all modern humanoids originated in southeastern Africa, possibly near what is now Tanzania, approximately 160,000-200,000 years ago. Scientific studies of our DNA have demonstrated that a single woman, commonly referred to as Mitochondrial Eve, is believed to have given birth to the family of man thousands of generations ago. It is also held that the mutation that set humanoids apart at this time had to do with an improvement in the ability to process language, a gift that has proven indispensable to our hunting skills and the ability to survive in many of the harshest environments on earth.
The first wave of humanoids to arrive in Florida were the Paleo-Indians who came approximately 12,000 years ago. Aside from a few burial mounds, middens, and stone tools found scattered across the state, little is actually known about these ancient peoples. We know they used Clovis projectile points and atlatls, giving them the ability to kill prey much larger than themselves.
They were hunter-gatherers who followed the big game they relied on for feeding their tribes, which seldom numbered more than 100 individuals. It is widely believed that these Paleo-Indians were responsible for the first wave of early extinctions across North and South America. This extinction, commonly called the Pleistocene overkill, resulted in the eradication of many of the megafauna that once inhabited peninsular Florida. These included the giant beaver, armadillo, mammoth, mastodon, cave bear, ground sloth, and saber-toothed tiger. By 6500 B.C., with most of the large, easy game eradicated, the Paleo-Indians began to settle down into distinct regions that would later give rise to the historic tribes that were living in Florida at the time of first European contact in the early 1500s. These tribes included the Calusa, Ais, Apalachee, Cherokee, Miami, Tequesta, Timucuan, and Tocobago.
With the discovery of the New World by the Spanish in 1492, the die was cast for dramatic changes for the indigenous peoples of Florida. By the 1700s almost all of the original Native Americans were gone and the state’s population was far less than it was 200 years earlier. The eradication of these native peoples did not come from warfare or enslavement, though both were factors, but predominantly from their lack of resistance to European diseases such as influenza, small pox, mumps, and measles. The state started repopulating after the Civil War ended in 1865 and has continued expanding its human population ever since.
A series of historical events, from the crash of 1929, through the Great Depression and World War II, kept Florida’s human population in check. Following the end of WWII, the 1950 census put the Sunshine State’s population at 2,771,305 people.
By 1960 that number had increased to 4,951,560, and by 1990 the number of people calling themselves Floridians had climbed to 12,937,926. The 2010 census shows Florida with a population of 18,801,310, or an overall density of 359 people per square mile. Although this is far less than the density of nearby Haiti, which is the western world’s most populated nation with a density of 900 per square mile, Florida still has the highest human density in the entire southeast United States.
This continued growth in Florida puts unsustainable pressures on wild spaces and will, without question, eventually cause the extinction or extirpation of many of the birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians described in this book (“Living Sanibel”). Every year more than 160,000 acres of wilderness lands are destroyed to make way for agricultural, industrial, urban, and suburban uses. Given this relentless growth, in 100 years Florida, the land of flowers, could well resemble the deforested and barren western end of the island of Hispaniola, which today includes the nation of Haiti.
The 2050 population of Florida is projected to be 32 million people, making the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of open spaces, parks, and preserves inevitable. Although the impact of human development is not to be underestimated, it must be noted that we are also the primary cause of the importation of invasive species such as black and brown rats, Brazilian pepper, melaleuca trees, Australian pines, Nile monitor lizards, Burmese pythons, peacock bass, and a host of insects and pathogens, such as fire ants and West Nile virus. In short, we arrive with tremendous baggage that further impacts the native flora and fauna.
Not everything we do is bad for wildlife. Certain species thrive in the face of changes wrought on the landscape by humanoids. These species include the white-tailed deer, coyote, wild turkey, mourning dove, house sparrow, black rat, raccoon, and feral pig, among others. Species that were once seriously endangered, such as the American alligator and southern bald eagle, are on their way to recovery.
The most serious threat to the future of all Florida wildlife will be the continued pressure to change large tracts of preserved land to accommodate humans. As the population increases over the coming decades, virulent political movements will deride the need for open spaces in favor of alternative uses. This could translate to a death sentence for animals such as the Florida panther, Florida scrub jay, and crested caracara, as well as many other species that are struggling to cope with human neediness.
To put these population numbers into perspective, consider that there are approximately 100 wild panthers left in Florida. There are three to four times that many people shopping in any given Walmart or Publix right now. There are fewer than 400 breeding pairs of snowy plovers in the state and fewer than 5,000 manatees.
Humans are the most populous mammal in Florida, and all indications are that this trend will continue for centuries to come. How we come to terms with our population growth and the impacts of that intractable growth will determine the future of all wild things in Florida.
The future is, in the end, up to us.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.