If humans never existed, Europe would be one giant zoo, new study shows

24 Aug 2015

A new study is attempting to answer one of mankind’s oldest questions: what would the Earth be like if humans never existed? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Earth would be a lot better without us.

The study, undertaken by Danish researchers from Aarhus University, asked what Earth would be like if humans never existed, not from a climate perspective, but simply one of biodiversity.

And from their findings posted in the journal Diversity and Distributions, it appears that Europe, in particular, has been the most devastated by human activity, with many native mammal species wiped out over the last few thousand years.

According to the news release on the findings, northern Europe without humans would not only be home to vast quantities of wolves, elks and bears, but would also likely have seen the immigration of faraway animals like the elephant or the rhinoceros.

This new study follows on from the research team’s previous study, which attributed the rise of man as the dominant species to the last Ice Age, which saw a large dying-off of many species.

Earth with humans

Current levels of mammal biodiversity on Earth charting number of large mammals species per 100kmx100km area. Illustration by Soren Faurby

Earth without humans

And a map of the Earth if humans never existed. Illustration by Soren Faurby

However, one of the researchers on the study, Prof Jens-Christian Svenning, has stated that greater biodiversity would not have been limited to Europe, but across the world

While Africa is considered the ‘last refuge’ for the greatest biodiversity among mammals in the world today, the study shows that, in a world without humans, the Americas – both North and South – would have far, far greater biodiversity than it does today.

Explaining why Africa remains one of the very few examples of mammal biodiversity, the lead author on the study, Soren Faurby, said: “The reason that many safaris target Africa is not because the continent is naturally abnormally rich in species of mammals. Instead, it reflects that it’s one of the only places where human activities have not yet wiped out most of the large animals.”

Likewise, the existence of greater mammal diversity in mountainous regions across the world is not due to natural patterns, but rather that we humans are less likely to go up there.

“The current high level of biodiversity in mountainous areas is partly due to the fact that the mountains have acted as a refuge for species in relation to hunting and habitat destruction, rather than being a purely natural pattern,” Faurby said.

“An example in Europe is the brown bear, which now virtually only live in mountainous regions because it has been exterminated from the more accessible and most often more densely populated lowland areas.”

Elks image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic