Ask the Naturalist

Bear, Elk and Talking Ape in Post-Apocalypse Muir Woods: What Are the Chances?*

August 14, 2014

A herd of elk and a grizzly bear make an appearance in Muir Woods in the opening scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Would such megafauna stage a comeback 10 years after humans are mostly killed off?

You might think a decade without the destructive power of human civilization would inspire some pretty awesome megafaunal comebacks. We called Mia Monroe, the interpretive supervisor at Muir Woods National Monument, to ask whether a rumbling herd of elk like the one snaking through the park’s giant redwoods in the opening scenes of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be one of them.

Chalk it up to Hollywood license, Monroe says: the animals just aren’t there now to repopulate the area. Medium-size animals such as coyote and bobcats are growing in number, Monroe reports. “But there are no megafauna wandering the park, or primates other than the usual Homo sapiens,” she says.

A fair point: when 9,000 volunteers combed the boundaries of the park earlier this year to record all the species they could spot, none of the finds, other than Monroe’s usual primate, constituted megafauna.

Elk do have a history in California’s valleys, however. The Tule elk, or Cervus canadensis nannodes, is a sub-species of elk endemic to California, and is named after the plant that is native to the state’s freshwater marshes. Based on bones found in Indian middens,or piles of ancient buried trash, as well as written accounts from early European settlers in the 17th to 19th centuries, biologists have concluded that before the mid-1800s there were as many as half a million Tule elk roaming California’s valleys.

“It’s possible that elk may have occasionally walked into Muir Woods,” Monroe says, though she adds that no elk bones have been found in the park to prove that hypothesis. If herds did wander through, they might have found their way to Frank Valley, the park’s most “suitable” habitat for elk. The herds would have been small, however, probably fewer than 100 individuals, Monroe says.

Looking back even further, to 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were low enough that our coastline stretched out beyond what are now the Farallon Islands, elk would have enjoyed a grassier, more open coastal landscape. Where today’s Bay lies there would have been a lush valley with plenty of marshland for the elk to graze. The coastal plains would have harbored other megafauna, including grizzlies like the beast that launched itself from forest undergrowth in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The last grizzly in California, however, was shot in Muir Woods in 1903. So there isn’t a population of elk or grizzlies present in Muir Woods to make a comeback even if human numbers were beaten back by an outbreak of Planet of the Apes-style “Simian flu.” A Tule elk revival is more likely to happen in Point Reyes National Park, where a small population was re-introduced in 1978. But, as Monroe laments, “Hollywood did not consult with us.”

If consulted, Muir Woods naturalists may have advised filmmakers to populate their post-apocalyptic park with packs of howling coyotes, gekkering foxes, and innumerable smaller creatures, rather than the improbable elk and grizzly. Planet of the Small Mammals: Now that’s got Hollywood potential.

About the Author

Sabine Bergmann is a Berkeley-based travel and science writer and the co-founder and editorial director of the quarterly travel magazine, Hidden Compass.

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