A day off to Durrell: Thoughts on archaeology, animals and the environment

On our weekly day off some of the team took the bus to Durrell Wildlife Park, a place a few of us have wanted to visit for years. We were pleasantly surprised by how friendly and content the animals seemed. Check out George the Gibbon below, chilling.

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 Figure 1. George the gibbon relaxing in his enclosure

Although it might not seem hugely relevant to archaeology in planar view, the conservation element of the program at Durrell provokes interesting thoughts about animals and their environment. Many animals at the facility are housed in carefully tailored made habitats with regular meals catered to their specialised nutritional requirements. These species are endangered because they occupy distinct ecological niches, now threatened by the environment, humans and the effect humans have on the environment. Similar to that of modern species today, the wild fauna that lived throughout the Ice Age during glacials and interglacials would have faced distinct climatic fluctuations that would have caused adaptation, migration and finally extinction.

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 Figure 2. A Megaloceros and Smilodon ‘playing’.

 An example of adaptation to environment can be found here on Jersey at Belle Hougue Cave where evidence of a dwarfed form or red deer has been found. This decrease in body size is likely linked to a competitive island environment where the deer became smaller to maximise energy efficiency from their food consumption. Archaeologists have suggested that the red deer became trapped on Jersey as the sea level rose in a warmer interglacial reducing the land surface available to the species. We can study these changes in faunal presence, absence and evolution to infer characteristics of past climate even to the point of understanding vegetation and terrain change. Linking this back to the premise of the Durrell project is the stress on animals living in their own unique environments and the threat and pressure that climate change and human interaction subjects upon this. These factors have both been put forward as causes for the decline and extinction of Ice Age megafauna thus demonstrating a past example of the situation some modern species now housed at Durrell are facing.

As part of the Ice Age Island project in the future we hope to re-assess the faunal remains from La Cotte de St. Brelade, using multivariate data to understand and interpret the climate and landscape Jersey’s Pleistocene fauna would have experienced. It’s an interesting thought that if conservation centres had evolved in the Last Glacial Maximum places, like Durrell, could have been home to mammoth, woolly rhino and sabre-toothed cats!

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Figure 3. Sabre-tooth cat.

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