Population reconstructions for humans and megafauna suggest mixed causes for North American Pleistocene extinctions

Nat Commun. 2018 Dec 21;9(1):5441. doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-07897-1.


Dozens of large mammals such as mammoth and mastodon disappeared in North America at the end of the Pleistocene with climate change and "overkill" by human hunters the most widely-argued causes. However, the population dynamics of humans and megafauna preceding extinctions have received little attention even though such information may be telling as we expect increasing human populations to be correlated with megafaunal declines if hunting caused extinctions. No such trends are expected if climate change was the primary cause. We present tests of these hypotheses here by using summed calibrated radiocarbon date distributions to reconstruct population levels of megafauna and humans. The results suggest that the causes for extinctions varied across taxa and by region. In three cases, extinctions appear linked to hunting, while in five others they are consistent with the ecological effects of climate change and in a final case, both hunting and climate change appear responsible.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Climate Change*
  • Extinction, Biological*
  • Humans
  • Mammals*
  • North America
  • Paleontology
  • Population Dynamics*
  • Radiometric Dating