What would the world look like without people? What brought about the circumstances that made it so that Earth was no longer habitable or hospitable for mankind? There are many iterations of what the Earth would look like without people. Some depictions have cities crumbling, skyscrapers eventually succumbing to nature and gravity. Others see it as a wasteland, where humans have wiped out any hope for a greener, brighter future. Scientists are now turning to their own methods to determine what the world would look like without humans.
Without humans, nature would resume a balance of sorts. Animals native to various parts of the world would regain their traditional habitats formerly lost to cities, highways, and suburban sprawl. Without humans around in the first place, animals like elephants would still roam parts of northern Europe. Mammal diversity would be greater, and the migratory patterns of those animals would range across large distances.
In a study by Aarhus University in Denmark a map of animal diversity and migration is shown using data related to how humans and animals have interacted since the last Ice Age. The expansion of the human race has impacted the diversity of animal species in all corners of the world. Africa alone has retained the highest level of animal diversity, although North and South America also have large-mammal diversity. Africa remains a location where humankind hasn’t encroached upon the native wildlife to the point of driving the majority of species away or to extinction.
Africa may not be the most hospitable place for many animal species, but it is a location that has proved more hospitable and advantageous for evolutionary adaptation of animals. In other parts of the world, mountains and valleys hold the most diversity for animals not because animals have necessarily evolved there, but because these locations were less likely to be inhabited by humans. Scientists and conservationists are creating this baseline map of the world without humans to determine where animals would have lived and roamed without mankind’s influence.
Understanding baseline diversity of animals could also help conservation efforts to reintroduce species in the wild in locations they have been pushed out of. While this is certainly a long-term goal for many environmental organizations, some more short-term accomplishments include reclaiming certain environments in the name of boosting animal diversity in a specific location. As more knowledge about human’s impact on animals comes out, scientists and citizens alike can determine what they can do to create a happier world for animals.
In a world without humans, elk and buffalo would roam the Great Plains and elephants may still trumpet across Europe. Since we’re here now, mankind has the obligation to not only study the natural world and how we’ve affected it, but to maintain as much environmental integrity moving forward as we are able to. Although we can’t reverse the cities we’ve built or the roads that connect us, we can use what we know about the animal world to make their future healthy and sustainable.
Faurby, S., & Svenning, J. C. (2015). Historic and prehistoric human-driven extinctions have reshaped global mammal diversity patterns. bioRxiv, 017368.
Without humans, the whole world could look like Serengeti. Aarhus University, August 20, 2015.