A coupled climate-vegetation-mammal-human model for simulating Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions

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


The period 60,000-5,000 years ago saw the extinction of up to a thousand species of large vertebrates ('megafauna') across six continents. Understanding the cause of these extinctions is important for several reasons. It is the most recent substantial extinction event in the geological record; there is a background of detailed knowledge about environmental change against which to view the responses of the mammals; and humans are strongly implicated by many researchers as partial or exclusive causal agents. For all of these reasons, understanding the cause of the extinctions, and the reasons why some species survived while others did not, can provide a unique historical analogue for addressing the current biodiversity crisis.

The two main contenders for the megafaunal extinction are vegetation change driven by climate, and hunting by humans, either separately or in combination. Although the extinction was worldwide, we will focus on Europe, northern Asia and North America as these areas have the best data on the distributions and extinction of the mammals. We will first develop computer-based simulations of local climatic conditions across the study area; for the first time climate changes will be modelled on a year-by-year basis over the past 40,000 years. Using this information we will model vegetation types across the entire area. When climate changed, vegetation changed, but our model will be crucially more realistic than previous ones in that we will allow for the lags in vegetational response as plant species expand slowly across large areas (e.g. trees may have taken 1500 years to arrive in northern Europe when climate warmed after a long cold spell). In addition, the model estimates not only the type of vegetation but its productivity, i.e. amount of growth each year, of crucial importance to herbivorous mammals.

Many of the mammals that went extinct (such as the woolly mammoth and wooly rhinoceros) were grazing species adapted to the productive grasslands of the last glaciation, and the predators that depended on them. Many of those that survived were browsing (woodland) mammals or those of mixed habitats. We will develop, for both victims and survivors, a biological profile for each species including their body weight, reproductive rate, and preferred foods. These will be determined from living relatives and from direct evidence such as wear on fossil teeth that indicates diet. We will also establish their climatic tolerance from the range of climates they occupied in the past.

Adding the mammal fauna to the modelled climate and vegetation, and running the computer model from 40,000 years ago up to the present, the effect of climate changes on the vegetation, and the effect of both on each mammal species, will be evident. Moreover, the model will include feedback from the feeding activities of the mammals to the structure of the vegetation itself. A final element in the model is the addition of variable levels of human hunting, the distribution of people being determined from known archaeological sites. Analysis of all the data will determine if climatic and vegetational change, with or without the addition of hunting, are sufficient to account for the extinction of some megafauna and survival of others. This will be determined by comparing model results with the known pattern of range changes and extinction based on the fossil record.

The vegetation model that we develop would also allow prediction of likely responses to future climatic changes. Similarly, the climate simulations will be applicable to other processes (e.g. the changing extent of arctic permafrost). Our results will be directly relevant to various stakeholders, informing landscape management and biodiversity conservation strategies. We will ensure that they are communicated to such stakeholders, as well as to the scientific community and wider public.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

1. Policy-makers concerned with the conservation of biodiversity and of functioning ecosystems, and with the development of policies to facilitate adaptation to climatic change:
* UK national government agencies (including Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission)
* Equivalent national agencies in other countries (e.g. US Fish and Wildlife Service )
* International agencies (e.g. Bern Convention of the Council of Europe, European Environment Agency, European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity, United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, International Union for Conservation of Nature)
2. Non-government organisations whose goals relate to the conservation of biodiversity and functioning ecosystems and whose activities include developing strategies to facilitate adaptation to climatic change, informing their supporters and the wider public about these strategies and why they are needed, and lobbying governments about the implementation of such strategies into policy. These will include bodies operating at:
* UK national level (e.g. Woodland Trust)
* European or wider international level (e.g. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, PlantLife
* national or international level from a base in other countries (e.g. Wildlife Conservation Society, Nature Conservancy, both based in the USA)
* global level (e.g. Conservation International, BirdLife International, World Wildlife Fund).
3. Members of the general public with interests in wildlife, conservation, palaeontology and archaeology, as well as the wider public whose future quality of life will be influenced by the natural world's response to climatic change.

How will they benefit from this research?

Climate change is leading to species shifting their geographical distributions, but the rate at which such changes occur is expected to lag the rate of climatic change, especially in the case of long-lived plants. Developing policies and strategies that will minimise the negative impacts of such lags and maximise the capacity of landscapes to support species' range shifts is essential to the adaptation of species and ecosystems to climatic change, and is thus a high priority for both policy-makers and those in non-government agencies. These stakeholders will benefit from the outputs of our proposed research because they will document how ecosystems responded to past rapid climatic changes. The development of a dynamic vegetation model able to simulate spatial dynamics and the role of dispersal limitations will also allow the exploration of likely responses to projected future climatic changes. The inclusion of herbivore population dynamics, moreover, will allow investigation of how the spatial dynamics of vegetation change will impact upon herbivore distribution and abundance patterns, leading to reductions in range or density, and potentially to extinction.

The explicit modelling of a very well-known extinction event is likely to gain considerable coverage in the media, schools and other learning arenas such as museums. By these means it will capture the interest of the general public and enable them better to grasp the finality of extinction and its causes, many of which in the Late Quaternary (climate change, habitat loss, human action) resonate with those of today. Interested members of the general public, as well as the wider public, will ultimately benefit from the enhanced quality of life that will result from development and adoption of policies that will minimise negative impacts of climatic change on biodiversity and ecosystem function. Such policies will optimise opportunities for species and ecosystems to adapt to climatic change, and by doing so will also ensure that ecosystems continue to deliver the ecosystem services upon which the health and wellbeing of human society are critically dependent.


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Description Audited databases of radiocarbon databases of ca. 20 large mammal species, as well as modern humans, have been produced by the NHM team. A new climate simulation for the northern continents covering the past 60,000 years has been produced and published by project co-investigators in Bristol. This is being used for modelling the response to climate change of our large array of mammal species. We published a paper adding a 'new' species to the list of species extinct during the end of the last glaciation. This is Elasmotherium sibiricum, the 'Siberian unicorn' that we showed was likely extinct before 35,000 years ago, probably because of climate change in connection with its specialised ecology. We also obtained the first DNA for this species that confirmed its very distant relationship to living rhinos, so this species extinction was actually the extinction of a whole subfamlily of rhinos. We also published a new analysis of the extinction of the giant deer ('Irish Elk') Megaloceros giganteus, showing Holocene survival across a wide region of eastern Europe and Central Asia, and extinction by successive extirpation of populations that mostly correlate not with climate change but with the spread of closed forest, as well as the arrival of human settlement in some areas, suggesting a synergistic effect.
Exploitation Route Elasmotherium sibiricum is a new species to add to synthetic modelling of Late Quaternary extinctions. Data demonstrating the contribution of climatic and vegetational change to the extinction of Elasmotherioum and Megaloceros should be taklen kinto account when considering the relative impact of human and environmental causes of Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. Our results are also being incorporated in an upcoming (spring 2020) high-profile exhibition at the Natural History Museum.
Sectors Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.nhm.ac.uk/our-science/our-work/origins-evolution-and-futures/extinction-large-mammals-late-quaternary.html
Description Our 2018 paper on the extinction of the rhinoceros Elasmotherium led to significant press and media coverage. We gave a presentation at European Researchers' Night at the natural History Museum in September 2018, an event attended by around 8000 members of the public.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

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