A niche-modelling approach to understanding late-Quaternary megafaunal extinctions

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences

Abstract

A number of large mammals ('megafauna') became extinct towards, or following, the end of the last glacial period. The cause of their extinction, and in particular the reason why some species went extinct, whereas other large mammals survived to the present day in the same regions, remains a matter of debate amongst scientists. Two principal hypotheses have been advanced to account for the extinctions. Firstly, it is suggested that the major climatic changes and associated ecological upheavals of the end of the glacial stage resulted in the conditions to which the species were adapted no longer being available to them. Secondly, given the coincidence of the extinctions with an increasing population and expanding geographical range of humans, it is suggested that human activities, principally the pressures exerted upon the megafaunal populations by hunting, caused the extinctions. We propose to adopt a new approach to investigating these extinctions and to discriminating between these alternative explanations. Our research will uniquely combine: (i) detailed dating information from high quality radiocarbon dates made directly on fossils of megafaunal species (ii) simulations of past climate for the periods of interest made using the same kind of climate model as is used to simulate potential future climates; and (iii) evidence of megafaunal species' habitats and diets. The latter will be inferred from: (i) simulations of past vegetation; (ii) records of past vegetation; and (iii) those rare instances where fossils of megafaunal species are found directly associated with plant remains, notably in the case of fossils from the permafrost in which the stomach contents are preserved. We will use these data to construct models relating the megafaunal species' geographical ranges to climate, habitat and components of their diet. We will then use these models to simulate the changing potential range of each species. The models and these simulations will enable us to assess the series of hypotheses, testing of which is the principal aim of our study. Our study will encompass all of northern Eurasia and North America, enabling us to include the complete geographical ranges of species that ranged across both continents in the past, and will extend from about 50,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago. In addition to studying a range of extinct species, including herbivores, carnivores and omnivores, we will also examine a comparable range of species that survive to the present day. In these cases we will also use data recording the species' current geographical distributions. By examining both extinct and surviving species we will be able to make critical comparisons that will provide insight into the factors determining which species survived and which suffered extinction. The results of our study will help elucidate the relative importance of environmental, especially climatic, change, of the ecological characteristics of the species themselves, and of human activities, in causing the extinctions.

Publications

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Allen J (2010) Last glacial vegetation of northern Eurasia in Quaternary Science Reviews

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Brace S (2012) Serial population extinctions in a small mammal indicate Late Pleistocene ecosystem instability. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Chritz K (2009) Palaeobiology of an extinct Ice Age mammal: Stable isotope and cementum analysis of giant deer teeth in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

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Gamble, Clive; Boismier, William A.; Coward, Fiona (2012) Neanderthals Among Mammoths: Excavations at Lynford Quarry, Norfolk

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Gamble, Clive; Boismier, William A.; Coward, Fiona (2012) Neanderthals Among Mammoths: Excavations at Lynford Quarry, Norfolk

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Klinkhamer AJ (2019) Head to head: the case for fighting behaviour in using finite-element analysis. in Proceedings. Biological sciences

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Magyari E (2010) Holocene persistence of wooded steppe in the Great Hungarian Plain in Journal of Biogeography

 
Description Megafaunal extinctions in northern Eurasia (excluding Mediterranean islands) since the Last Interglacial claimed about 37% of species with body weights >44 kg. We reviewed the dating evidence for the timings of these extinctions, which were staggered over tens of millennia. Moreover, individual species disappeared at different times in different geographical areas. For example, cave bear probably disappeared ca. 30.5e28.5 ka, at approximately the onset of GS-3 (beginning of 'LGM'), whereas cave lion survived until the Lateglacial ca 14 ka. Others survived into the Holocene: woolly mammoth until ca 10.7 ka in the New Siberian Islands and ca 4 ka on Wrangel Island, giant deer to at least 7.7 ka in western
Siberia and European Russia. It is evident that climatic and vegetational changes had major impacts on species' ranges, and moreover the contrasting chronologies and geographical range contractions are consistent with environmental drivers relating to their differing ecologies. However, the possible role of humans in this process has still to be satisfactorily explored.

We have now published detailed reviews of the radiocarbon record and extinction chronology of woolly rhinoceros, giant deer, cave lion, spotted hyaena and cave bear and assessed them in terms of climatic and vegetational drivers of extinction.
Exploitation Route Climate models and vegetation maps have been used by others interested in last-glacial climates and vegetation. Faunal datelists are being used in species distribution modelling by others.
Sectors Environment

URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/earth-sciences/fossil-vertebrates/fossil-vertebrate-research/quaternary-mammals/large-mammal-extinction/index.html
 
Description Critical review of methods used in the use of radiocarbon dating in understanding faunal change and extinction. Explanation of methods used in our project. Published as: "Extinction chronology of the woolly rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis: reply to Kuzmin", Quaternary Science Reviews 62:144-6. Will set new standards in a field in which poor auditing of radiocaerbon evidence has led to misleading results. Our published compilations of radiocarbon dates have also been used by various researchers, especially those in the field of ancient DNA and niche-modelling
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Royal Society UK-Russia exchange scheme
Amount £5,066 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 03/2017
 
Description Standard Grant
Amount £753,350 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P002536/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2019
 
Description Appeared on Channel 4 documentary 'Britain's Last Mammoths'. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Broadcast used the Condover (Shropshire) mammoths as a springboard to discuss the effects of climate change and extinction.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.channel4.com/programmes/walking-through-time/on-demand/64143-002
 
Description Mammoths: Ice Age Giants 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was chief scientific advisor to the Natural History Museum's exhibition 'Mammoths: Ice Age Giants', and made sure outputs from our funded research were included in the exhibition.

126,000 visitors saw the exhibition. I also did numerous media activities, special tours, etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2014/may/emotional-welcome-for-beautiful-mammoth-lyuba130851.html
 
Description Nature Live presentation at Natural History Museum of mammoth extinction 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 30 minute Talk/interview, illustrated with specimens. Sparked lively discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Public lecture as part of Edinburgh Science Festival 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards

Some participants joined elephant conservation charities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/uploads/Festival2014/EISFPROGRAM2014small5.pdf
 
Description Talk on mammoths at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre, 8th October 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Keynote talk as part of activity weekend across Shropshire to celebrate 30 years since the excavation of the Shropshire mammoths (which I co-led). Update on the research done since that date and ongoing. Generated great interest and much discussion, as well as renewed local pride.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.shropshirestar.com/entertainment/2016/09/14/mammoth-weekend-at-shropshire-hills-discovery...
 
Description Talk to students at the Lyell Society, Royal Holloway, 25th February 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Invited talk on Late Quaternary Extinctions to geology students at Royal Holloway. Sparked questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016