Between 5,000 and 7,000 tigers live in the United States. That there should be that much uncertainty about just how many 500 pound cats are sharing our nation is a little surprising, since even the difference between those two numbers — the 2,000 tigers that we may have — is more than the population of tigers remaining in India. All of these tigers are supposedly behind bars. Most are in zoos, but a large number are involved in some type of entertainment (circuses, stage acts, etc). An insane number (in this case, insane being any number greater than zero) are in private homes as pets — a practice still allowed by over a dozen states. One county over from me there are two tiger sanctuaries located only a few miles from each other where a score of aging tigers slumber. One of them is a combination tiger sanctuary and golf course, which would seem to offer some unique opportunities for "hazards."

Across the country, there are frequent reports of tigers or other large exotic cats spotted "in the wild," if slouching through the shrubbery at the edge of a subdivision can be considered wild. No doubt some small number of tigers and other big have slipped loose over the years. Still, even if all the doors on all those tigers were to slip open at the same time, it would certainly result in temporary chaos and more than a few... incidents. But in the long term the results are easy to predict: all the tigers would die.

To see why, you only have to look at the tiger’s relatives in the Americas. A male mountain lion weighs in at about 150 pounds — about a quarter the size of a large tiger. To keep itself fed, a mountain lion prowls an area ranging from around 50 to as much as 400 square miles. The American bobcat is a considerably smaller animal. At 25 pounds, it’s about one-sixth the size of the mountain lion, and it makes do with about one-sixth the area. In the eastern United States, there are no mountain lions left (barring the few who may have been turned out by exotic pet owners having second thoughts). Bobcats in the eastern United States number in the hundreds of thousands.

Just as it's hard for large animals to make it through the narrow gates of extinction events, it's also hard for them to survive when big areas are broken into smaller and smaller lots. Supporting a large predator, like the cougar, requires a large area in part because a large predator needs a large amount of prey. Warm-blooded mammalian hunters down a goodly amount of meat each day (for an adult mountain lion, the number is around 10 pounds). Cougars will eat anything down to mice and insects, but supporting a meat habit that runs through the equivalent of a freezer full of steak daily requires a lot of meat on the hoof (or on the Timberland trail boot). Squeezed into little islands of territory between unfriendly people -- who hunted them for bounties -- mountain lions didn't make it.

Little bobcats made it just fine, thank you. In fact, bobcat numbers today may be greater than they were a century ago when they had to compete for prey with their larger cousins. When territory gets small, the small get successful.

To support large animals takes large areas. That’s true even of animals that dine on plants. Big plant eaters have serious advantages over smaller animals when it comes to exploiting their environment. Elephants can push over trees to get at the leaves, or uproot shrubs to chew the roots — options not open to their smaller competitors. Which is great for the short term, but an animal that survived by shoving over trees won’t last long if there are only a few trees available. Elephants make good use of their size, as long as they have an equally large area to use.
Elephant’s ability to exploit a wide variety of resources makes elephants viable in a surprisingly wide range of environments. Yes, they can be found trekking across the African savannas, but they are also creatures of the deepest forests and even vast deserts. Similar advantages must have accrued to the elephants shaggier relatives twelve thousand years ago. Mammoths and mastodons were able to survive in tough conditions, both because their size helped insulate them against cold temperatures and because they were able to go after everything from roots to treetops in an effort to find food.

Of course, elephants and all their kin are still relatively small when compared to the real giants of the past. The largest elephant on record weighed in at 13 tons and stood a bit over 14’ at the shoulder. The sauropod dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods included animals that weighed as much as six elephants and some whose length was well over 120’.

Like elephants, the sauropods were surely able to exploit food resources that other animals couldn’t have reached. There have been debates about just how high sauropods could raise their long necks. Restorations have painted them as anything from lumbering vacuum cleaners hoovering up ferns at ground level, to hyper giraffes browsing among the redwoods. The truth likely falls in between, with enough flexibility grab food from ground level to 40’ in the branches or higher.

When these giants were first discovered, it was assumed they were too heavy to stand without the assistance of water. So the earliest images we have of such dinosaurs has them standing in swamps, munching on soft water plants. That’s the image that persists for many people. But further study shows that these dinosaurs were fully capable of walking quite well across dry land. In fact, they were likely creatures of the open plains, marching many miles over prairies of ferns and mosses in search of pastureland. The evidence indicates that the areas in which many sauropod bones are found were the Mesozoic equivalents of savanna. They may well have also taken advantage of the food available around water — there are several known trackways that were on shorelines. Like elephants, they may have also been able to cross deserts and reach resources beyond the ability of smaller creatures. However, one area where elephants thrive may have been out of reach for the sauropod giants. It’s hard to imagine such animals living in the forest, if only because turning around a 100’ form among tightly clustered trees seems impossible. On the other hand, they might have adopted a version of the elephant’s strategy — knock the trees down first, then turn around wherever you want.

The most common plants during the time when sauropods were at their peak were conifers — pine, cedars, yews, etc. The big sauropods probably made these plants a staple of their diet. There aren’t many animals that dine primarily on pine needles today, because these prickly little leaves are notoriously low in nutrition. That’s where another advantage of size comes in. Big animals pack around a big gut, and big guts on average are more efficient at extracting nutrition from food. As sauropods expanded their diet to include less and less nutritious sources, they needed to pack around bigger and bigger stomachs — a kind of arms race on limited calories and vitamins as these creatures attempted to nab every source of food possible.

Sauropods appeared quite early in the history of dinosaurs, and some of them were there right to the bitter end. But that’s not true for all areas. North America was host to many types of large sauropods during the Jurassic Period, but as final age of the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous, came along, North America was split apart by a broad inland sea. Even though the three remaining pieces of North America were huge "islands" sauropods became a much less important part of the American fauna. It may be that, for animals this size, even an island a thousand miles across starts to feel a little tight.

Other giants also require giant habitats. Like giant television shows.
Stephen Johnson's 2006 book, Everything Bad is Good for You, makes a convincing argument that over the years television programs have increased in complexity and quality. While a nostalgic fan of TV past might groan at the idea, it doesn't take many minutes of watching the best shows of current television versus what was on twenty, thirty, or more years ago to conclude that Johnson is right. Would anyone really argue that Mannix is more worthy program than Mad Men?  Would you rather spend your time in Hawaii with Five-Oh or Lost?

Starting in the early 1980s, television hit a period of rapid development, and the hour long drama in particular grew into rich, complex entertainment. The niche that had been occupied by vacuous, slow moving dramas built around single plot threads and with minimal character development,  grew increasingly crowded with programs featuring expansive casts of experienced actors, complex interwoven multi-threaded plots, and intricate story arcs. Problems were no longer neatly buttoned up in the space of a single episode, and characters were no longer neatly brushed off and restored to their starting positions for the beginning of the next week.

Many of the conventions that helped establish prime time "quality television" reach that apex of respect came from the least respected portion of the daytime airwaves -- soap operas. It was in soap operas that television worked through the problems of dealing with serial material, large casts, and ongoing stories. The nighttime dramas benefited from larger budgets, which in turn allowed hiring of more experienced actors, writers, directors, staff, along with more lavish sets and effects. When it came to plot, many of the primetime shows were not too far from their soapier kin.

Many of the soap operas had made the transition from radio incarnations. They also drew inspiration from the "serials" once shown before the main feature at movie theaters. Ultimately all of them owed a debt to the kind of serialized fiction that had been pioneered by writers like Charles Dickens who published his works a few chapters at a time in magazines. Desperate readers who haunted the docks in New York City in 1840, waiting to hear the fate of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop are the spiritual ancestors of viewers who browsed the TV guide, hoping for a clue about the whether Uncle Junior or Tony would emerge as the head of the family.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. Just as large dinosaurs had a hard time making it in shrinking habitats, big television was facing its own dilemma. And just as it did with the dinosaurs, the threat originated in space.

Johnson isn’t alone in singling out Hill Street Blues as the definitive punctuation in the television equilibrium. It was the program that proved that the viewing audience had grown up, that we had mastered the conventions of television well enough to deal with multiple overlapping plot lines and characters whose motivations were considerable less clear than those of Matt Dillon or Andy Taylor. The world in which Hill Street first clambered over the television plains was one of only three networks. Even so, the show struggled to gain a footing, never making the top twenty shows in its seven seasons. Still, Hill Street set the patter than would be followed by a hundred dramasaurs to follow.

Then came cable. And satellite. New broadcasts networks came (and went). A viewing audience that had been divided into thirds became split across first dozens, and then hundreds of choices. Feeding a dramasaur became increasingly challenging as the environment was reduced into a series of smaller and smaller cable islands. The same economics is at work in the daytime, reducing the once thundering herd of soap operas to a bare handful of gaunt survivors. Increasingly, reality shows — descendants of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which was television’s top show in the first full year of Nielsen ratings — shoved aside the ungainly giants.
Even the most gaudy reality shows cost a fraction of what it took to film a scripted drama, and that advantage was increasingly telling as revenues shrank. In 2009, NBC threw in the towel on supporting a full slate of dramas, and replaced most of their evening tally with five nights a week of Jay Leno. All across the digital dial, giants were looking fragile.

But there is an alternative. Europasaurus is found in the Late Jurassic rocks of northern Germany. It’s relatives among the Brachiosaurs weighed as much as 90 tons and were over 100’ long. However, Europasaurs giant ancestors were stranded on an island in the shallow sea that covered many parts of Europe at the time. There they underwent a process that’s been seen many times over evolutionary history, but which is not fully understood — island dwarfism. In this reduced environment, "fitness" no longer favored the biggest animals among the sauropod herd. Instead it was the smaller members who were able to find enough food in the limited space. Over generation, the Europasarus was reduced from a Jurassic Park giant, to a size close to the Flintstone version of Dino. An adult was around 15’ long and held its head at a height that would put it eye to eye with a human.

Eurosaurus wasn’t the only mini-sauropod. There were several others that underwent the same process of shrinkage. Magyarosaurus lived on islands in what is now Romania and was even smaller. They were still clearly sauropods, with the same design as their big relatives. Just smaller.
Island dwarfism isn’t limited to dinosaurs. On three of California’s Channel Islands there are remains of another little giant. Mammoths reached the islands around 50,000 years ago and proceeded to follow the isolated island path of reduced size. An adult Channel Islands Mammoth was around 5’ tall at the shoulder — the Shetland pony of the Mammoth family (and in fact, Shetland ponies are also examples of island dwarfism). The little Mammoths continued to browse on the Channel Islands until the  Chumash people showed up around 11,000 years ago and were less impressed with the Mammoths’ cuteness than they were with their tastiness.

Dramasaurs may survive in the same way. The average episode of Mad Men costs about $1.1 million. Not exactly cheap, but about one-fourth a typical network hour. Of course, the average audience for Mad Men is about one-thirtieth that of an episode of Dallas at its peak, but newer shows have also extended their search for viewers into the DVD aisle and into complex cross-channel promotions. In addition to shrinking their per episode cost, dramas living in the islands of cable have reduced the number of episodes they shoot in a season.

This doesn’t mean the quality of the shows has decreased. In fact, the pressure to survive in this environment may be driving these shows toward even more innovation, riskier performances, challenging plot lines. They are still giants — just smaller giants.

After all, in natural selection small doesn’t mean less fit. It often means successful. Not only do small creatures stand a much better chance of surviving past periods of widespread extinction, they can also outlive their bigger relatives. On Wrangel Island, a hundred miles off the coast of Russia in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, the last Woolly Mammoths on Earth outlasted the giants of the plains by almost ten thousand years. Their relatives might have been impressive, but they were long gone. Meanwhile, Wrangel’s little Mammoths outlived 14 Egyptian dynasties, the Kingdom of Hammurabi, and the Xia dynasty in China.

Giants might be impressive, but little giants get the last laugh.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Sep 27, 2009 at 07:26 AM PDT.

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