Processes leading to range contractions and population declines of Arctic megafauna during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene are uncertain, with intense debate on the roles of human hunting, climatic change, and their synergy. Obstacles to a resolution have included an overreliance on correlative rather than process-explicit approaches for inferring drivers of distributional and demographic change. Here, we disentangle the ecological mechanisms and threats that were integral in the decline and extinction of the muskox (Ovibos moschatus) in Eurasia and in its expansion in North America using process-explicit macroecological models. The approach integrates modern and fossil occurrence records, ancient DNA, spatiotemporal reconstructions of past climatic change, species-specific population ecology, and the growth and spread of anatomically modern humans. We show that accurately reconstructing inferences of past demographic changes for muskox over the last 21,000 years require high dispersal abilities, large maximum densities, and a small Allee effect. Analyses of validated process-explicit projections indicate that climatic change was the primary driver of muskox distribution shifts and demographic changes across its previously extensive (circumpolar) range, with populations responding negatively to rapid warming events. Regional analyses show that the range collapse and extinction of the muskox in Europe (~13,000 years ago) was likely caused by humans operating in synergy with climatic warming. In Canada and Greenland, climatic change and human activities probably combined to drive recent population sizes. The impact of past climatic change on the range and extinction dynamics of muskox during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition signals a vulnerability of this species to future increased warming. By better establishing the ecological processes that shaped the distribution of the muskox through space and time, we show that process-explicit macroecological models have important applications for the future conservation and management of this iconic species in a warming Arctic.
Keywords: Arctic; climate change; exploitation; extinction dynamics; mechanistic model; megafauna; range dynamics; spatially explicit population model.
© 2022 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.