I think this definitely hinges upon the manner in which we wipe ourselves out. If we catch a killer plague and it kills ALL HUMANS, the environment wouldn’t be as damaged as if we blow ourselves up with nukes and destroy the whole world while we’re at it. If JUST HUMANS go extinct (which is unlikely), the next dominant species (which is obviously going to be otters. ha hs) will grow more quickly than if humans go extinct as part of some massive global trauma (like whatever killed the dinosaurs).
If we obliterated ourselves with nukes, we would wipe out just about everything living on earth. The thing about nukes too is that they literally blow away ozone as well. So if enough nukes were detonated to erase human existence, we would have a radiation filled planet with a very degraded atmosphere. The only forms of life that might survive would be those at the very depths of the sea. Life would start from there…working its way back to the surface…it took about 250 million years to go from vertebrates to amphibians…so i would estimate about that long.
I will preface this answer by saying it is completely theoretical and there is no way that I could know for sure what would happen if humans were gone. Human beings are strange creatures in that we desire to dominate the natural world around us. Most food chains are able to function supremely well without any single dominate creature. There are those that are good at eating other animals and those who are good at not being eaten. It is not a guarantee that another intelligent life form will even come about.
Supposing that some species does try to integrate into our intellectual niche. Not only would it take millions of years to reach our intellectual capacity but also longer still after that to be able to “dominate” livestock or agriculture; even longer still to survive all our pollution and waste. The key component that some naturalists argue led to our intelligence is our omnivore’s dilemma. We have to be smart to be able to choose between all the different foods we can eat. Some foods might kill us or make us sick, some might not. An interesting exposition on this idea is The Omnivore’s Dilemma written by Pollan (with a link to the book below). So I postulate that some other omnivore, maybe an ape or a rat would eventually fill our role as dominant species, but that the time it would take for it to do so could be ten million to 100 million years or not at all.
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