Extinction of large mammals in the Late Quaternary Ice Age

Painting of mammoths and early humans

Illustration showing hominids hunting mammoths during the Pleistocene period
© Alessandro Mangione and Benedetto Sala

Principal Investigator

Prof Adrian Lister

Project summary

We are researching the cause of megafauna extinction in the last major extinction event.

Hundreds of large mammal species disappeared during the transition from the last glaciation to the present interglacial period, from around 30,000 to 5,000 years ago. We are looking at the effects of climate change, changing vegetation and human hunting on this mass extinction.

We are focusing on species from Europe and northern Asia, along with some from North America, including:

  • woolly mammoths
  • woolly rhinoceros
  • giant deer (Irish elk)
  • cave bears
  • cave lions
  • spotted hyenas.


We are creating models to simulate the changing potential range of each species over time. This allows us to show whether species became extinct due to habitat loss or as a result of other factors such as human hunting.

To do this, we collect samples of bone and teeth from fossil sites across the former ranges of each species. We send these to the University of Oxford for radiocarbon dating.

Once we have hundreds of accurate dates for a species we plot them on maps. We then estimate the date of extinction and the pattern of range reduction leading up to extinction for that species.

Our collaborators at the University of Durham are refining maps of past vegetation changes, which we are comparing with changes in the mammal species' ranges.

Researchers at the Universities of Southampton and Bournemouth are collating archaeological data on human presence during the same period. This will help us to establish whether mammal range reduction and species’ extinction were due to the spread and density of prehistoric humans.


We have found that dramatic changes in vegetation at the end of the last Ice Age had major impact on the ranges of many species. This often reduced them to small populations that were vulnerable to human hunting.

Neither of these factors alone would have caused such widespread extinctions.

Current research

Not all species became extinct at the same time or due to the same combination of causes.

We are now expanding our species list to include mammals that survived the extinction event, such as reindeer and bison. We are also investigating whether the ecological tolerances of different species help explain why some went extinct and others survived.

This is relevant to understanding the vulnerability of different species to habitat loss and poaching today.         

Museum staff

Prof Adrian Lister

External collaborators


Stuart, AJ & Lister, AM (2014). New radiocarbon evidence on the extirpation of the spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta (Erxl.)) in northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews 96: 108-116.

Stuart, AJ & Lister, AM (2012). Extinction Chronology of the Woolly Rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis in the Context of Late Quaternary Megafaunal Extinctions in Northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews 51: 1-17.

Huntley, B., Allen, JRM, Collingham, YC, Hickler, T, Lister, AM, Singarayer, J, Stuart, AJ, Sykes, MT & Valdes, PJ (2013). Millennial climatic fluctuations are key to the structure of Last Glacial ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61963.

Lister AM and Stuart AJ (2008) The impact of climate change on large mammal distribution and extinction: evidence from the last glacial/interglacial transition. Comptes Rendus Géosciences, 340: 615 – 620.

Stuart AJ, Kosintsev PA, Higham TFG and Lister AM (2004) Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth. Nature, 431: 684 - 689.

Funded by


Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins, environment and the evolution of life


Fossil vertebrate research

Investigating the role of vertebrate evolution in shaping the history of life on Earth


Fossil mammal collection

The collections contains around 250,000 specimens from around the world