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Plio-Pleistocene decline of African megaherbivores: No evidence for ancient hominin impacts

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Science  23 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6417, pp. 938-941
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2728

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Megaherbivore extinctions in Africa

Human ancestors have been proposed as drivers of extinctions of Africa's diverse large mammal communities. Faith et al. challenge this view with an analysis of eastern African herbivore communities spanning the past ∼7 million years (see the Perspective by Bobe and Carvalho). Megaherbivores (for example, elephants, rhinos, and hippos) began to decline about 4.6 million years ago, preceding evidence for hominin consumption of animal tissues by more than 1 million years. Instead, megaherbivore decline may have been triggered by declining atmospheric carbon dioxide and expansion of grasslands.

Science, this issue p. 938; see also p. 892

Abstract

It has long been proposed that pre-modern hominin impacts drove extinctions and shaped the evolutionary history of Africa’s exceptionally diverse large mammal communities, but this hypothesis has yet to be rigorously tested. We analyzed eastern African herbivore communities spanning the past 7 million years—encompassing the entirety of hominin evolutionary history—to test the hypothesis that top-down impacts of tool-bearing, meat-eating hominins contributed to the demise of megaherbivores prior to the emergence of Homo sapiens. We document a steady, long-term decline of megaherbivores beginning ~4.6 million years ago, long before the appearance of hominin species capable of exerting top-down control of large mammal communities and predating evidence for hominin interactions with megaherbivore prey. Expansion of C4 grasslands can account for the loss of megaherbivore diversity.

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