Research Article

Abrupt warming events drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover

Science  07 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6248, pp. 602-606
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4315

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Climate killed off the megafauna

The causes of the Pleistocene extinctions of large numbers of megafaunal species in the Northern Hemisphere remain unclear. A range of evidence points to human hunting, climate change, or a combination of both. Using ancient DNA and detailed paleoclimate data, Cooper et al. report a close relationship between Pleistocene megafaunal extinction events and rapid warming events at the start of interstadial periods. Their analysis strengthens the case for climate change as the key driver of megafaunal extinctions, with human impacts playing a secondary role.

Science, this issue p. 602

Abstract

The mechanisms of Late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions remain fiercely contested, with human impact or climate change cited as principal drivers. We compared ancient DNA and radiocarbon data from 31 detailed time series of regional megafaunal extinctions and replacements over the past 56,000 years with standard and new combined records of Northern Hemisphere climate in the Late Pleistocene. Unexpectedly, rapid climate changes associated with interstadial warming events are strongly associated with the regional replacement or extinction of major genetic clades or species of megafauna. The presence of many cryptic biotic transitions before the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary revealed by ancient DNA confirms the importance of climate change in megafaunal population extinctions and suggests that metapopulation structures necessary to survive such repeated and rapid climatic shifts were susceptible to human impacts.

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