Evolution's Witness

I am one of billions who have personally witnessed the evolution of modern humans as we alter our blue planet's ecosystems in ways no animal has ever been able to. The evidence is overwhelming and yet many of us remain in a collective state of denial.

It saddens me deeply to see the rich green spaces of Florida disappear so fast, replaced by lifeless gray concrete. The land and wildlife have become stressed. Wetlands and rivers are no longer pristine or fully functional. The millions who visit here annually and the hundreds who move here daily seeking permanent paradise have become equally stressed as they attempt to drive on clogged interstate highways and deal with an infrastructure that is always lagging far behind the tremendous growth.

We all see it as our right to live wherever we please in America, to do what we want with our land and have as many offspring as we desire. I question that right as self-destructive. We are boxing ourselves in by selling a lifestyle that simply cannot live up to its promises in the long term.

I question my own sensibility as well. Should I leave to lessen the pressure? Should I gently encourage others not to move here in such great numbers? How can I when state officials and so many businesses--including my own--are doing everything we can to deliver people to our doorsteps? We concern ourselves so much with our immediate cares that we rarely consider the growing impact our sheer numbers are having on the natural world and ultimately on our own welfare.

At least once a day I feel the urge to leave Florida, my birthplace. All that I love is disappearing in front of my eyes at a madning pace. Ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years are being altered for large scale agriculture or replaced by manicured lawns that from the air look like a patchwork quilt of every individualís attempt to play Creator.

Itís not just the natural communities I see disappearing. I miss the sense of community one used to get in small towns across the nation. I am at fault here too. I only know the names of a few of my immediate neighbors. The others may as well be a world away. I accept that I have become part of the problem.

If I do leave, I have to consider the impact I will have on the next place I call home. How gently can I set foot there? Will things be any different? If people there are as stressed as we are here, wouldn't it be irresponsible of me to add to their woes?

Yes, there are lifestyle changes I can make, things I can do personally to make the world a more sensible place to live in. But try as I may, it never seems to be enough. I know that without a strong commitment for change from our leaders -- those who hold most of the wealth and power, things are going to get far worse before they get better.

One way for me to cope with the loss of green space is to preserve Florida with my camera. I feel the need to capture as many natural scenes as possible knowing that any moment they may be gone forever.

Itís not just the present I seek to photograph and preserve. I have seen our stateís humble beginnings in a 500,000 year-old fallen Columbian mammoth and Old World horse I stumbled onto at the bottom of a highway retention pond. Iíve stood in the ancient beasts tracks recording a time when Florida was twice as wide as today. I have held in my hands a 10 million year-old tooth of C. megalodon I scooped from a river bed. The tooth belonged to a shark so large it would have made the Great White in the movie JAWS look like a minnow.

I have felt the presence of Native Americans in a projectile point I found in the same river bottom sediments and marveled that this finely crafted tool was fashioned several thousand years before I was born. The absence of the shark, mammoth, horse and Native Americans are evidence that for better or worse, life continues.

I have also photographed my generation's role in changing our world in ways that seem unnatural. I so want to point the finger at everyone else but I know if I do there will be four other fingers pointing back in my direction.

My photos are not just for you. They're also for me. Maybe they will make me think. Maybe they will wake me to action. Maybe they will open my eyes to ways in which I can alter evolution for the better. Maybe.


Mark Renz

Lichens illustrate the "Big Bang" theory as they radiate from a wooden fence
post in Corkscrew Swamp Santuary, Collier County.

It's only fitting that the most famous supporter of evolution reveal himself in something as ancient as algae. But don't look for the photo to be on sale at e-bay any time soon. De Soto County.

Below a 21st Century cow pasture are the remains of an ancient seascape.
Scenes like this produce clear evidence that life evolves.

A primitive spiny jewel box has survived intact throughout an Ice Age. De Soto County shell pit.

While feeding, sharks shed thousands of teeth in a single lifetime. Over the eons, billions were scattered in shallow salt water bays. Orange River, Lee County.

Florida first emerged from the ocean as a land mass some 37 million years ago. It didn't remain dry for long. The state has been inundated by shallow seas at least 24 times in the last two million years alone.
Big Cypress Preserve, Collier County.

Once the seas drained and land emerged, fresh-water rivers were soon cutting through the sediments of time. Fossil collectors wade into such rivers to collect pieces of prehistory. To see cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) lining the banks of the Peace River is to know you're looking at Old Florida. Hardee County.

No one has ever found a dinosaur bone in Florida. Our state was under water during much of their reign. It would take a hole over 6,000 feet deep to even begin searching the right layers of sediment. But in Florida's back country where human voices are seldom heard, there are sometimes rumored sightings of living dinosaurs... Charlotte County.

For over 150 million years, alligators have gone unnoticed by evolution. For the past 11 million years, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) has dominated Florida's soggy swamp bottoms, ponds, rivers and canals. The toothy reptile is a prime example of how fragile our planet can be. After surviving through multiple mass extinctions, a single upright animal had nearly hunted alligators into extinction in less than 100 years. Under federal protection in the 1960s, the alligator made a comeback and limited hunting is allowed today. But as more people move to Florida--and into the alligator's habitat--the resilient creature may not make it through this current century.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County.

Looking like a size 15 tennis shoe, a mammoth tooth protrudes from the skull of an extinct Columbian mammoth that died 500,000 years ago. I stumbled onto this site while Florida Department of Transportation workers were digging a retention pond in Hendry County. With the help of over 100 volunteers, representation of 12 mammoths and mastodons turned up and were donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

An 8 ft. long mammoth tusk is exposed in the half-million year-old riverbed. Mammoths grew to 13 feet high at the shoulders and probably consumed 300-500 pounds of greenery per day. Humans would not set foot in Florida for another 480,000 years. Hendry County.

Along with mammoths and mastodons, ancient horses turned up in the same half-million year-old riverbed. One was a new species for Florida. Equus Pseudaltidens would have resembled todayís wild horses of Tibet. Hendry County.

Floridaís late archaic residents of 4,000 to 2,500 years before present were master craftsmen and survivalists. They probably had greater control over their world than did any animal they came into contact with. Their offspring would eventually fall prey to their own kind -- explorers of a different culture who in the 1500s brought with them guns and diseases. These artifacts are common finds in Florida's rivers and streams. Hardee County.

Like the proud Calusa Indians that preceded them, the Seminoles used dug-outs to move about in the mosquito-filled swamps of South Florida.

The Seminoles were nearly wiped out in the 1800s as white settlers pushed into Florida. They are the only Native American tribe that has never officially surrendered to the United States. Today they donít need to. With casino money and political clout, they can marry within and retain their sense of identity or assimilate within Floridaís diverse nationalities. When country music star John Anderson needed a video to support his song, "Seminole Wind" in the 1990s, his PR person hired me to locate alligators for supporting roles. This photo is one of the scenes in the video. Collier County.

A reflective Seminole matriarch at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in the Everglades. Deeply etched lines in her face tell the story of a life lived mostly outdoors. Collier County.

Wagon sits on the 91,000 acre Babcock Ranch purchased by former Pittsburgh mayor E.V. Babcock in 1913 for 25 cents an acre. When Marisa and I got married and spent our honeymoon on the property, it was one of the largest contiguous land holdings in Florida. We could drive our swamp buggies for 10 miles and not encounter another human. In 2006, 74,000 acres were sold to the state for nearly 500 million dollars. The remaining 17,000 acres was acquired by a private developer for a proposed "Babcock City" of 50,000 residents. Charlotte and Lee counties.

Old ďCrackerĒ house has protected generations of families from hurricanes since the early 1900s. I often think about it when the wind picks up and newcomers scatter to the nearest concrete shelter to protect
themselves from a storm. Hendry County, FL.

The Florida cattle industry is one of the oldest established businesses in North America. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon delivered the first bovine beasts here in 1521, strapped in harnesses aboard wooden ships. The first ranchers were Cubans, followed by Seminoles, then white settlers. De Soto County.

Captive Southern cougar (Felis concolor) that was part of the Babcock Ranch nature tours. Tom was one of five big cats under my care as tour manager. The state has released cougars into the wild to help boost the Florida panther gene pool. Panthers were nearly wiped out by hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Populations are still relatively small, numbering fewer than 200. It's a no-win situation for the big cats. Increasing human populations means less habitat, more confrontations with cars and more diseases brought on by inbreeding. Charlotte County.

Great egret (Ardea alba). Millions of Florida wading birds were slaughtered in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their feathers became decorations for women's hats and other fashions. What eventually saved the birds was not a ban on killing them but a change in women's fashions. Although their numbers have greatly increased, wading birds today represent only 10 percent of the original populations. Bird droppings are known to provide valuable nutrients for Florida wetlands. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Lee County.

Every county should build dirt roads that go nowhere and that force you to slow down.
Community of Gardner along the Peace River. Hardee County.

As adults, my brother Dave and I revisited our old childhood swimming hole. When so much of our world was reduced to memories it was comforting that there was still a place that had remained unchanged. Lee County.

A symbiotic relationship exists between water, plants and animals in the Everglades. The swamp acts as a huge filter to cleanse the water of any impurities and prevents soil erosion. The water in turn provides nourishment and a habitat for all types of life forms. Big Cypress Preserve, Collier County.

The message: humans can't be trusted to be good stewards of Earth. We can clearly see that we are mistreating the planet but have trouble changing our ways. Peace River, De Soto County.

Endangered wood storks (Mycteria american) require just the right depth of shallow water to feed. If development encroaches into these shallow areas, the birds simply won't breed. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel. Lee County.

Whether this car was stolen and intentionally dumped here or wound up the Everglades by accident, its presence is not surprising. There is a tremendous amount of pressure placed on Florida's green spaces as hundres a day move here and look for places to live. Add to that number the impact of millions visiting the state annually. Big Cypress Preserve, Collier County.

Florida loses thousands of acres of forest land annually because of the numbers moving here or visiting. Lee County.

Florida's future. From rich green to rich gray. Lee County.

American dream, wildlife nightmare. Lee County.

Main Street of rural La Belle through my rear-view mirror. Hendry County.

Florida hunters have finally figured out how to capture the Wiley coyote. As a non-native, itís invasion into Florida in the 70s has been unstoppable. Increased auto traffic is now doing what guns and baited traps
have failed to do. De Soto County.

The optimist in me believes we're all going to wake up one morning and say, "Wow, now I get it! We're screwing it all up! But starting today, things are going to be different. From lowly me to our nation's leaders, we're going to pull our collective heads out of the sand and start doing right by each other and nature."
The realist in me says, "It ain't gonna happen". Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier County.

I'm a big believer in second chances. And thirds and fourths and fifths.
Whatever it takes for us to do the right thing while there's still time.