Unraveling the causes of the Ice Age megafauna extinctions

November 3, 2011

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Photo courtesy of George Teichmann

A study led by the University of Copenhagen and involving more than 40 academic institutions, including Murdoch University, has revealed that neither climate nor humans alone can account for the Ice Age mass extinctions.

For decades, scientists have debated the reasons behind the megafauna extinctions, which caused the loss of a third of the large mammal species in Eurasia and two thirds of the species in North America.

Now an extensive, inter-disciplinary research team led by Professor Eske Willerslev’s Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, has conducted the biggest study of its kind.

Using ancient megafauna DNA, climate data and the archaeological record, the findings indicate dramatically different responses of Ice Age species to climate change and humans.

For example, the study, which was published online today in the journal Nature, shows that humans played no part in the extinction of the woolly rhino or the musk ox in Eurasia and that their demise can be explained by climate change. On the other hand, humans aren’t off the hook when it comes to the extinction of the wild horse and the bison in Siberia. Our ancestors share responsibility for the megafauna extinctions with climate change. While the reindeer remain relatively unaffected by any of these factors, the causes of the extinction of the mammoths is still a mystery.

Eske Willerslev said: “Our findings put a final end to the single-cause theories of the Ice Age extinctions, and suggests that care should be taken in making generalizations not just regarding past and present species extinctions but also those of the future; the impacts of climate change and human encroachment on species extinctions really depends on which species we’re looking at.”

However, Eline Lorenzen from the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study said: “We do find that climate change has been intrinsically linked with major megafauna population size changes over the past 50,000 years, supporting the view that populations of many species will decline in the future owing to climate change and habitat loss.”

James Haile, from the School of Biological Sciences at Murdoch University, and a co author of the paper said: “The key finding of this research has implications for the extinction of Australian megafauna too, illustrating that the process is likely to have been complex, and that different species responded to environmental and anthropogenic effects in different ways.”

Despite the unparalleled amount of data analysed in this study, the authors find no clear pattern distinguishing species that went extinct from species that survived, suggesting that it will be extremely challenging for experts to predict how existing mammals will respond to future global climate change.

Media contact: Pepita Smyth
Tel: (08) 9360 1289  |  Mobile: 0417 171 551  |  Email: p.smyth@murdoch.edu.au
Categories: General, International
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