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Concept: Megafauna


Accounts of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) preserved so well in ice that their meat is still edible have a long history of intriguing the public and influencing paleontological thought on Quaternary extinctions and climate, with some scientists resorting to catastrophism to explain the instantaneous freezing necessary to preserve edible meat. Famously, members of The Explorers Club purportedly dined on frozen mammoth from Alaska, USA, in 1951. This event, well received by the press and general public, became an enduring legend for the Club and popularized the notorious annual tradition of serving rare and exotic food at Club dinners that continues to this day. The Yale Peabody Museum holds a sample of meat preserved from the 1951 meal, interestingly labeled as a South American giant ground sloth (Megatherium), not mammoth. We sequenced a fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene and studied archival material to verify its identity, which if genuine, would extend the range of Megatherium over 600% and alter our views on ground sloth evolution. Our results indicate that the meat was not mammoth or Megatherium but green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). The prehistoric dinner was likely an elaborate publicity stunt. Our study emphasizes the value of museums collecting and curating voucher specimens, particularly those used for evidence of extraordinary claims.

Concepts: Megafauna, Green turtle, Georges Cuvier, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Pleistocene mammals, Pleistocene megafauna


Relict woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) populations survived on several small Beringian islands for thousands of years after mainland populations went extinct. Here we present multiproxy paleoenvironmental records to investigate the timing, causes, and consequences of mammoth disappearance from St. Paul Island, Alaska. Five independent indicators of extinction show that mammoths survived on St. Paul until 5,600 ± 100 y ago. Vegetation composition remained stable during the extinction window, and there is no evidence of human presence on the island before 1787 CE, suggesting that these factors were not extinction drivers. Instead, the extinction coincided with declining freshwater resources and drier climates between 7,850 and 5,600 y ago, as inferred from sedimentary magnetic susceptibility, oxygen isotopes, and diatom and cladoceran assemblages in a sediment core from a freshwater lake on the island, and stable nitrogen isotopes from mammoth remains. Contrary to other extinction models for the St. Paul mammoth population, this evidence indicates that this mammoth population died out because of the synergistic effects of shrinking island area and freshwater scarcity caused by rising sea levels and regional climate change. Degradation of water quality by intensified mammoth activity around the lake likely exacerbated the situation. The St. Paul mammoth demise is now one of the best-dated prehistoric extinctions, highlighting freshwater limitation as an overlooked extinction driver and underscoring the vulnerability of small island populations to environmental change, even in the absence of human influence.

Concepts: Climate change, Extinction, Megafauna, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


Megaherbivores (>1000 kg) are critical for ecosystem health and function, but face population collapse and extinction globally. The future of these megaherbivore-impoverished ecosystems is difficult to predict, though many studies have demonstrated increasing representation of C3 woody plants. These studies rely on direct observational data, however, and tools for assessing decadal-scale changes in African ecology without observation are lacking. We use isotopic records of historical common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) canines to quantify herbaceous vegetation change in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda following a period of civil unrest and poaching. This poaching event led to population collapse of two threatened African megaherbivore species: hippopotamus and African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Serial carbon isotope ratios (δ(13)C) in canine enamel from individuals that lived between 1960-2000 indicated substantial increases in C3 herbaceous plants in their diet (<20% C3 in the 1960s to 30-45% C3 in the 80s and 90s), supported by other observational and ecological data. These data indicate megaherbivore loss results in succession of both woody and herbaceous C3 vegetation and further reaching effects, such as decreased grazing capacity and herbivore biodiversity in the area. Given multiple lines of evidence, these individuals appear to accurately capture herbaceous vegetation change in Mweya.

Concepts: Ecology, Elephant, Hippopotamus, Perennial plant, Megafauna, Herbaceous plant


Extinctions can dramatically reshape biological communities. As a case in point, ancient mass extinction events apparently facilitated dramatic new evolutionary radiations of surviving lineages. However, scientists have yet to fully understand the consequences of more recent biological upheaval, such as the megafaunal extinctions that occurred globally over the past 50 kyr. New Zealand was the world’s last large landmass to be colonized by humans, and its exceptional archaeological record documents a vast number of vertebrate extinctions in the immediate aftermath of Polynesian arrival approximately AD 1280. This recently colonized archipelago thus presents an outstanding opportunity to test for rapid biological responses to extinction. Here, we use ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis to show that extinction of an endemic sea lion lineage (Phocarctos spp.) apparently facilitated a subsequent northward range expansion of a previously subantarctic-limited lineage. This finding parallels a similar extinction-replacement event in penguins (Megadyptes spp.). In both cases, an endemic mainland clade was completely eliminated soon after human arrival, and then replaced by a genetically divergent clade from the remote subantarctic region, all within the space of a few centuries. These data suggest that ecological and demographic processes can play a role in constraining lineage distributions, even for highly dispersive species, and highlight the potential for dynamic biological responses to extinction.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Ecology, Extinction, Dinosaur, Megafauna, Extinction event, Timeline of extinctions


To date, the earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa are dated to around 90,000 to 120,000 years ago at the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh. A maxilla and associated dentition recently discovered at Misliya Cave, Israel, was dated to 177,000 to 194,000 years ago, suggesting that members of the Homo sapiens clade left Africa earlier than previously thought. This finding changes our view on modern human dispersal and is consistent with recent genetic studies, which have posited the possibility of an earlier dispersal of Homo sapiens around 220,000 years ago. The Misliya maxilla is associated with full-fledged Levallois technology in the Levant, suggesting that the emergence of this technology is linked to the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, as has been documented in Africa.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Thought, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Prehistory, Megafauna, Homo sapiens idaltu


The extinct ‘New World stilt-legged’, or NWSL, equids constitute a perplexing group of Pleistocene horses endemic to North America. Their slender distal limb bones resemble those of Asiatic asses, such as the Persian onager. Previous palaeogenetic studies, however, have suggested a closer relationship to caballine horses than to Asiatic asses. Here, we report complete mitochondrial and partial nuclear genomes from NWSL equids from across their geographic range. Although multiple NWSL equid species have been named, our palaeogenomic and morphometric analyses support the idea that there was only a single species of middle to late Pleistocene NWSL equid, and demonstrate that it falls outside of crown group Equus. We therefore propose a new genus, Haringtonhippus, for the sole species H. francisci. Our combined genomic and phenomic approach to resolving the systematics of extinct megafauna will allow for an improved understanding of the full extent of the terminal Pleistocene extinction event.

Concepts: Horse, Extinction, Pleistocene, Equus, Donkey, Megafauna, Mammoth, Holocene extinction


The late Quaternary megafauna extinction was a severe global-scale event. Two factors, climate change and modern humans, have received broad support as the primary drivers, but their absolute and relative importance remains controversial. To date, focus has been on the extinction chronology of individual or small groups of species, specific geographical regions or macroscale studies at very coarse geographical and taxonomic resolution, limiting the possibility of adequately testing the proposed hypotheses. We present, to our knowledge, the first global analysis of this extinction based on comprehensive country-level data on the geographical distribution of all large mammal species (more than or equal to 10 kg) that have gone globally or continentally extinct between the beginning of the Last Interglacial at 132,000 years BP and the late Holocene 1000 years BP, testing the relative roles played by glacial-interglacial climate change and humans. We show that the severity of extinction is strongly tied to hominin palaeobiogeography, with at most a weak, Eurasia-specific link to climate change. This first species-level macroscale analysis at relatively high geographical resolution provides strong support for modern humans as the primary driver of the worldwide megafauna losses during the late Quaternary.

Concepts: Human, Species, Mammal, Extinction, Pleistocene, Holocene, Megafauna, Holocene extinction


The hominin record from southern Asia for the early Late Pleistocene epoch is scarce. Well-dated and well-preserved fossils older than ∼45,000 years that can be unequivocally attributed to Homo sapiens are lacking. Here we present evidence from the newly excavated Fuyan Cave in Daoxian (southern China). This site has provided 47 human teeth dated to more than 80,000 years old, and with an inferred maximum age of 120,000 years. The morphological and metric assessment of this sample supports its unequivocal assignment to H. sapiens. The Daoxian sample is more derived than any other anatomically modern humans, resembling middle-to-late Late Pleistocene specimens and even contemporary humans. Our study shows that fully modern morphologies were present in southern China 30,000-70,000 years earlier than in the Levant and Europe. Our data fill a chronological and geographical gap that is relevant for understanding when H. sapiens first appeared in southern Asia. The Daoxian teeth also support the hypothesis that during the same period, southern China was inhabited by more derived populations than central and northern China. This evidence is important for the study of dispersal routes of modern humans. Finally, our results are relevant to exploring the reasons for the relatively late entry of H. sapiens into Europe. Some studies have investigated how the competition with H. sapiens may have caused Neanderthals' extinction (see ref. 8 and references therein). Notably, although fully modern humans were already present in southern China at least as early as ∼80,000 years ago, there is no evidence that they entered Europe before ∼45,000 years ago. This could indicate that H. neanderthalensis was indeed an additional ecological barrier for modern humans, who could only enter Europe when the demise of Neanderthals had already started.

Concepts: Human, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Pleistocene, Megafauna, Humans, Homo sapiens idaltu, Late Pleistocene


The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Here we report the results of new excavations conducted at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia. Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments. Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Concepts: Human, Africa, Hominidae, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Pleistocene, Megafauna, Homininae


There is growing interest in mining polymetallic nodules in the abyssal Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific. Nonetheless, benthic communities in this region remain poorly known. The ABYSSLINE Project is conducting benthic biological baseline surveys for the UK Seabed Resources Ltd. exploration contract area (UK-1) in the CCZ. Using a Remotely Operated Vehicle, we surveyed megafauna at four sites within a 900 km(2) stratum in the UK-1 contract area, and at a site ~250 km east of the UK-1 area, allowing us to make the first estimates of abundance and diversity. We distinguished 170 morphotypes within the UK-1 contract area but species-richness estimators suggest this could be as high as 229. Megafaunal abundance averaged 1.48 ind. m(-2). Seven of 12 collected metazoan species were new to science, and four belonged to new genera. Approximately half of the morphotypes occurred only on polymetallic nodules. There were weak, but statistically significant, positive correlations between megafaunal and nodule abundance. Eastern-CCZ megafaunal diversity is high relative to two abyssal datasets from other regions, however comparisons with CCZ and DISCOL datasets are problematic given the lack of standardised methods and taxonomy. We postulate that CCZ megafaunal diversity is driven in part by habitat heterogeneity.

Concepts: Species, Ecology, Oceanography, Statistical significance, Relative humidity, Estimation, Region, Megafauna