Woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and other Pleistocene megafauna roamed the Earth, forming a vital part of natural ecosystems. Today, they occupy no more than a CGI-manipulated place in the popular imagination, with appearances in natural history museums, animated movies and even in the hit TV series Game of Thrones as the dire wolf. How these mighty beasts have fallen!
Natural climate change was long thought to be behind their extinction, but recent studies have pointed to a new culprit: Man. Although Man cannot be solely held responsible, evidence suggests that early humans played a precipitating role in megafauna extinction which complemented the effects of climate change, at least in a fair number of continents like North America, Eurasia and Australia. Indeed, even in his less-than-glorious past, with his primitive weapons and small numbers, Man has managed to sound the death knell for these powerful creatures. With Man’s impact on biodiversity tremendously larger today, the prospects for today’s megafauna - elephants for example – are dire.
That said, important lessons abound for modern conservation from the unfortunate fate of these vanished giants. Human-induced climate change and human impacts on the natural environment are ever greater today, and the past has shown that these two factors have decimated two thirds of megafauna genera between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago – 40,000 years is merely the blink of an eye in geological time.
This blog explores the role of Man in Pleistocene megafauna extinctions and bridges the lessons of the past with the implications for contemporary conservation efforts.