Extinction of large mammals in the Late Quaternary Ice Age

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 megafaunal 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 50,000 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 extinct 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

These are being compared with living species to understand why some species survived and others didn’t, such as:

  • Red deer
  • Elk (moose)
  • Reindeer
  • Horse
  • Bison
  • Aurochs (extinct later)
  • European wild ass (extinct later)

Methods

Radiocarbon dates

We are using large compilations of carefully audited radiocarbon dates for each mammal species to help us reconstruct their Late Quaternary distributions.

We are also developing a similar database of direct and indirect radiocarbon dates for modern humans (Homo sapiens) and neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis) to reconstruct their spread and density across northern Eurasia and North America during this time.

Climate data

Our collaborators at the University of Bristol have developed a unique, high resolution climate dataset for the past 60,000 years for the northern hemisphere.

Dynamic vegatation modelling

Our collaborators at the University of Exeter and Lund University will use this climate data to reconstruct the distribution of different types of vegetation (primarily grass, shrubs and trees) using dynamic vegetation models, accounting for migratory lags in response to climatic change.

Ecological niche models

We will then combine these datasets into ecological niche models (ENMs) in order to identify the most important factors (climatic change, vegetation change, humans) for determining the past distribution and extinction of different megafaunal mammals.

Our colleagues in Frankfurt are also using the climatic and vegetation data in combination with mammalian life history parameters to develop population dynamics models simulating survival and extinction of large herbivores over the last 50,000 years. 

Collaborators

Publications

Lister AM, Stuart AJ (2019)
The extinction of the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach): new radiocarbon evidence.
Quaternary International 500: 185-203.

Kosintsev P, Mitchell KJ, Devièse T, van der Plicht J, Kuitems M, Petrova E, Tikhonov A, Higham T, Comeskey D, Turney C, Cooper A, van Kolfschoten T, Stuart AJ, Lister AM (2019)
Evolution and extinction of the giant rhinoceros Elasmotherium sibiricum sheds light on late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions.
Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3: 31–38.

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

Related information

Funded by

Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins and 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 collection contains around 250,000 specimens from across the world.