A new report that reexamines the extinction of ancient megafauna like the Woolly Mammoth takes some of the blame off humanity’s shoulders. As we trudge into what scientists are calling the Holocene extinction, it is difficult to ignore the destructive power humans wield over the natural world. The passenger pigeon, the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), the Carolina parakeet; the list of species wiped out by humanity goes on. However, one may feel a little less guilty to know abrupt climate change, not human hunters, killed the woolly mammoth.
According to a recent report published in Science, sudden warming temperatures are the main culprit in the extinction of ancient megafauna, such as the mammoth, the woolly rhino, and the dire wolf. “This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” said Professor Alan Cooper, lead author of the report. “Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions.” In contrast, the report notes that extended cold periods, such as the infamous Ice Ages, did not correlate with mass extinction as the researchers had originally suspected.
To reach their conclusion, the researchers analyzed ancient DNA samples and fossil records and utilized radiocarbon dating of artifacts. As more fossil-DNA became accessible for research, scientists began to notice a pattern in mass extinction events. In conducting their research, the team pioneered new statistical methods and gathered extensive and precise data on Pleistocene megafauna that can be used by others.
Although the megafauna’s fate was written on the cave walls, humans were not entirely innocent. “It is important to recognize that man still played an important role in the disappearance of the major mega fauna species,” says co-author Professor Chris Turney. “The abrupt warming of the climate caused massive changes to the environment that set the extinction events in motion, but the rise of humans applied the coup de grace to a population that was already under stress.” This mammoth prehistory lesson also shines some light on the future of our global ecosystem. When you add the modern addition of human pressures and fragmenting of the environment to the rapid changes brought by global warming, it raises serious concerns about the future of our environment,” says Cooper.