Large As Life
Polar Bear
Giant Squid Model on display

Why are big animals so rare?

Large animals need more food than smaller animals, and their size restricts where they can go to find it. Both factors determine not only where large animals are found in nature, but also how much they are affected by human activity such as deforestation.

A small animal needs a small amount of food, and it can usually find it in a fairly limited area. Thus, a given patch of forest can support many raccoons, but might only provide enough resources for one or two bears. An average black bear may need as much as one hundred times the space required by a raccoon. When a forest is disrupted — by the building of a highway through it, for example — small forest dwellers may cope with the change fairly readily, but a larger animal may find itself confined to only a fraction of its former range, too small a space to sustain it.

While being large reduces the danger from predators, it also poses challenges in getting around — a big creature might have trouble moving through the dense undergrowth of a forest, for instance. Thus, kodiak and polar bears tend to live in open environments, while the smaller black bear, though it prefers forests, can live in either. In western North America, as formerly open spaces have been divided up for agriculture and pastures, the brown bears who once lived there have disappeared, and the smaller black bears have replaced them. If these areas continue to be developed, however, we can expect that the black bears will eventually be squeezed out as well.

How do big animals figure in human culture?


Animals have always occupied a prominent position in the human imagination. They figure in our traditions, in our religions, and in the stories we tell each other. The relationships of animals to each other and to their environment give us something to compare ourselves to. This, in turn, provides us with a framework for describing our relations to each other; animals are thus, in the words of Claude Levi-Strauss, “good to think.” By examining and understanding the different ways we talk about animals, we can begin to learn how we think about ourselves.

In Western civilizations, for example, people have historically drawn a sharp distinction between themselves and the animal kingdom. As a result, Western gods take human form; also, people are thought to have souls and afterlives, while animals do not. In the belief systems of non-Western civilizations, however, animals, like people, often have afterlives and appear as gods as well.

Totemism, which involves a mystical relationship between a group of people and one or more species of animal, is one particular way animals take on spiritual significance in human culture. The animal (or animals) can be considered either an ancestor of the human lineage, that at some point changed from animal to human form, or simply as a disguise for a mythical culture hero. In totemistic belief, human society is just one of the many animal societies that share the world; accordingly, an injury to a totemic animal is frequently a crime, like the injury of a human.

What does it mean to be a big animal in nature?


In general, large animals tend to grow slowly, live a long time, and have few offspring compared to smaller animals. Large-bodied animals also tend to evolve in fairly stable environments. Why is this? In a stable environment, newborns have a relatively good chance of surviving to adulthood; consequently, parents tend to have few offspring and invest extensive amounts of time and energy in them. Additionally, these offspring usually have long growth periods and end up larger. By contrast, smaller animals often have many offspring, and invest little effort in any one individual.

Most of the creatures in Large As Life follow the large animal pattern, especially the bears, the cats, and the rhino. For instance, among the big cats, litters of more than a half dozen are rare. The squid is a notable rulebreaker, in that it lays millions of eggs at a time, of which only a handful live long enough to reproduce. And while adult cats will care for their cubs as they grow, baby squid have to make it on their own.

In addition to limiting where it can live, an animal’s body size affects its susceptibility to ecological disturbances. For large animals, to which only a few young are born every year, an abrupt change, such as an environmental shift or the intrusion of humans, can easily eliminate a whole generation at a time. Moreover, once a population crash occurs, animals that give birth to many offspring will be able to recover quickly, while large animals, with their small litter sizes and slow maturation rates, can only rebuild their population slowly, if at all.