Extinction of large mammals in the Late Quaternary Ice Age

Hundreds of large mammal species died in the last major extinction event, during the period of transition from the last glaciation to the present interglacial period, about 30,000 to 5,000 years ago.

What are the causes of the large mammal extinction ?

We are researching the cause of megfauna extinction looking at the effects of 

  • climate change
  • changing vegetation 
  • human hunting

We are concentrating on species from Europe and northern Asia, plus some from North America, focusing on:

  • woolly mammoth
  • woolly rhinoceros
  • giant deer (Irish elk)
  • cave bear
  • cave lion
  • spotted hyena

Research techniques

  1. Gathering samples of bone and tooth from fossil sites all across the species’ former ranges, and submitting them for radiocarbon dating at the University of Oxford.
  2. Collating hundreds of dates for each species and plotting them on maps. We can then estimate:
    • the date of their extinction
    • the pattern of how their range shrank leading up to extinction
  3. Comparing patterns of change in the mammal species with information on the changing climate and vegetation. Collaborators at the University of Durham are refining maps of past vegetation changes against which to view the response of the mammals.
  4. We use these data to construct niche models to simulate the changing potential range of each species. This allows us to show whether species became extinct due to habitat loss, or whether other factors such as human hunting might have been involved.

Other collaborators at the University of Southampton are collating thousands of archaeological records of human presence over the same period, to establish if range shrinkage or extinction of the mammals was related to the spread and density of prehistoric humans.

Research findings

We have found that for many species the dramatic shifts of vegetation as the last ice age came to an end had major effects on their ranges, often ultimately shrinking them down to small, vulnerable populations, and left them vulnerable to human predation. 

Neither effect alone would have caused such widespread extinctions.

Extinction of woolly rhinoceros

Extinction of woolly rhinoceros 

A Before 40,000 years ago, the range of the woolly rhinoceros covered much of northern Eurasia.

B During the last glacial maximum, between 27,000 and 20,000 years ago, the species still occupied a wide range but had retreated from Western Europe.

C As the climate began to warm, between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago, the species’ range contracted further to the East.

D By 13,000 years ago, as forests replaced its grassland habitat, the woolly rhinoceros was extinct.

Each red dot indicates a radiocarbon-dated fossil. Grey areas are ice sheets. Present-day coastlines are shown superimposed on past land areas.

The extinction of large mammals across northern Eurasia

The extinction of large mammals across northern Eurasia

The vertical scale is in thousands of years before present. 

Green bars show the known time-span (from 40,000 years ago) of  a range of large mammals: Ursus spelaeus (cave bear),Crocuta crocuta (spotted hyaena), Coelodonta antiquitatis (woolly rhinoceros), Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth), Megaloceros giganteus (giant deer), Panthera spelaea (‘cave’ lion), Ovibos moschatus (musk-ox).

C. crocuta survives in Africa and O. moschatus in Greenland; the other species are globally extinct.

Time-ranges for neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (H. sapiens) are also shown. 

GS are cold periods; GI and Holocene are warm periods.

© Cave bear image Ó N Frotzler. Other images Ó A. Mangione, B. Sala, and Superintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell’Umbria

Current work

Not all species went 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.
  • Investigating whether the ecological tolerances of different species help explain why some went extinct and others did not.

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

Project staff

Project collaborators

  • Tony Stuart, Brian Huntley, Judy Allen and Yvonne Collingham 
    University of Durham
  • William Davies
    University of Southampton
  • Monika Knul
    Bournemouth University
  • Tom Higham
    University of Oxford

Research funded by

References

  • 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. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061963.
  • 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.