Today, we examine the natural history of the Antelope Valley and the greater state of California. Before the arrival of humans to the continent, large animals known as “Megafauna” dominated the landscape. North American megafauna was highly diverse and included among them some of the most iconic and recognizable animals to ever walk the earth. Herbivores like the Mammoth and American Bison and carnivores like the Saber-toothed Tiger and Dire Wolf roamed across ancient California long before the arrival of humans.
Many lesser-known species roamed the Californian landscape alongside these famous animals. Among these creatures were giant ground sloths that could weigh up to 2200 lbs. and towering short-faced bears that stood over 11 feet tall! Other megafauna that existed in California before the arrival of humans included the American Lion, North American Cheetah, and several Camel species.
Megafauna existed throughout the world in consistent abundance for hundreds of millions of years. Only in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years did the biodiversity of the megafauna in North America begin to decline and species begin to go extinct at exponential rates. Of course, the loss of the megafauna closely coincides with the expansion of the human species throughout the globe. As humans began to settle in an area, the species of megafauna that also called that area home inevitably dwindled in number and usually died off rapidly. The same was true for California’s megafauna.
The vast majority of the megafauna that existed in California before human settlement are now extinct. Some notable exceptions include the California Condor and American Bison. The California Condor is the largest existing North American land bird and is currently listed as critically endangered. California Condors are scavengers and subsist primarily upon already-deceased animals.
Before the arrival of humans to the continent, the California Condor had a range that covered all of North America. The abundance of other megafauna on the continent meant that the California Condor had plenty of food to support its large size.
With the arrival of humans and the coinciding mass extinction of the North American megafauna, the California Condor’s range began to shrink and the species went extinct everywhere but in California. Here, the California Condor was able to survive into modern times by subsisting upon dead marine life that washed up along California’s shores. Their numbers continued to diminish into the 19th and 20th centuries as Western settlers further encroached upon their habitats.
In 1982, only 23 California Condors existed in the wild. Over the past 40 years, interventions by scientists have resulted in an increase in the wild condor population to about 290.
Though still critically endangered, the California Condor’s continued existence is certainly encouraging. The California Condor and American Bison are what remains of an awe-inspiring period in the natural history of the Antelope Valley and California. These organisms, frozen in time, offer us a glimpse into an oft-forgotten and spectacular world.
Kurt Moses, La Brea Tar Pits, National Park Service