OPEN PloS one | 23 Jul 2020
C Baumann, H Bocherens, DG Drucker and NJ Conard
Nowadays, opportunistic small predators, such as foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Vulpes lagopus), are well known to be very adaptable to human modified ecosystems. However, the timing of the start of this phenomenon in terms of human impact on ecosystems and of the implications for foxes has hardly been studied. We hypothesize that foxes can be used as an indicator of past human impact on ecosystems, as a reflection of population densities and consequently to track back the influence of humans on the Pleistocene environment. To test this hypothesis, we used stable isotope analysis (δ13C, δ15N) of bone collagen extracted from faunal remains from several archaeological sites located in the Swabian Jura (southwest Germany) and covering a time range over three important cultural periods, namely the Middle Palaeolithic (older than 42,000 years ago) attributed to Neanderthals, and the early Upper Palaeolithic periods Aurignacian and Gravettian (42,000 to 30,000 years ago) attributed to modern humans. We then ran Bayesian statistic systems (SIBER, mixSIAR) to reconstruct the trophic niches and diets of Pleistocene foxes. We observed that during the Middle Palaeolithic period, when Neanderthals sparsely populated the Swabian Jura, the niches occupied by foxes suggest a natural trophic behavior. In contrast, during the early Upper Palaeolithic periods, a new trophic fox niche appeared, characterized by a restricted diet on reindeer. This trophic niche could be due to the consumption of human subsidies related to a higher human population density and the resulting higher impact on the Pleistocene environment by modern humans compared to Neanderthals. Furthermore, our study suggests that, a synanthropic commensal behavior of foxes started already in the Aurignacian, around 42,000 years ago.
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