Humans and mass extinction

It is often said that the biosphere is currently undergoing species losses that may rival those of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction, with the rate of new extinctions being estimated at about 100 times the background rate during geological time. Scientifically, this is probably a dodgy assumption for palaeobiologists simply do not have the evidence to suggest what such a ‘normal’ rate might be. The fossil record is notoriously incomplete for a whole variety of reasons largely to do with both preservation and fossil collection strategies. For instance, as today, some genera may have been very common and widespread in past times, whereas others rare and restricted to small ecological niches. The record of life is prone to huge errors so that only huge, global shifts in diversity, such as mass extinctions, can be viewed with statistical rigour; and then only with caveats. For sure, the rapid demise of species today is cause for alarm and dismay, and more taxa – mainly of smaller and more restricted groups – probably have escaped identification, and will continue to do so. In the context of growing human impacts on ecosystems across the globe extinction is an increasingly emotive topic, as witness the clamour among some geoscientists for adding a new Anthropocene Epoch to the to the Stratigraphic Column. Does that require renaming the Holocene, beginning 11,700 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, during which agriculture began? Should its start be assigned to some event during recorded history, such as the European invasion of the Americas after 1493, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or the explosion of the first thermonuclear weapons in the 1940s and 50s? Or did humans begin significantly to affect the biosphere once their spread from Africa started after about 130 ka ago, i.e. in the late Pleistocene? That argument may well run and run: it is foremost a scientific issue, to which rules apply. A cogent example is that of the fate of megafaunas on the major continents except Antarctica as humans migrated far and wide.

The demise of the large flightless birds of Madagascar and New Zealand form a well known case as they almost certainly followed first colonisation by humans around 200 BC and 1300 CE respectively. The megafaunas of the much larger continents of Australia and the Americas have been deemed to have been more than decimated in the same way after about 65 ka and 15 ka respectively. There are no longer giant armadillos and ground sloths in South America, mammoths ceased to roam North America, and giant wombats, marsupial predators and kangaroos only remain as bones, to name but a few. It has been argued that their extinctions stemmed from the first human migrants literally eating their way through vast terrains. Yet the vast herds of Africa seem not to have been affected in the same way, until much more recently as population grew and modern projectile weapons became widely available. That has been suggested to have resulted from co-evolution of humans and megafauna over two million years, together with instinctive caution among large African beasts, whereas the ‘naivety’ of their counterparts in the Americas and Australia doomed them to extinction. Of course, it is likely that things were a great deal more complicated in every case, as argued in a review of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions by Gilbert Price of the University of Queensland, and colleagues from Australia, the US and Denmark (Price, G.J. et al. 2018. Big data little help in megafauna mysteries. Nature, v. 558, p. 23-25;  doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05330-7).

The gist of Price and colleagues’ critique of meta-analyses of data – 32 since 1997 – concerning allegedly human-induced extinctions is that much of the pertinent data is either low quality or poorly understood. For starters, much of the dating is questionable, either using inaccurate and outdated methods or based on inference. For instance, fossils of some alleged victim, e.g.  Australian land crocodiles (Quinkana) and giant wombats (Ramsayia), have never been dated. Moreover, dates of the last known fossils are used when they may have remained extant until more recently: wooly Eurasian mammoths were long supposed not to have survived the last glacial maximum, yet recently mammoth bones from Wrangel island were found to be as young as the second millennium BCE. In 2010 spores of the fungus Sporormiella, in sediment cores, which grows only on digested plant matter in herbivore dung, was used as a proxy for the former presence or absence of large herbivore herds. Its decline in sediments after 13 ka in North America happened to coincide roughly with the start of the North American Clovis hunter culture, which was used to show that extinctions of large herbivores were linked to human predation. Yet such fungi also live on excrement of many animals both large and small, and its preservation is affected by changes in climate and water flow. To properly link declines and extinctions in human prey animals requires concrete evidence of predation, such as cut marks on identifiable bones within middens associated with human habitation, such as hearths.

When emotion, ambition and bandwagon tendencies become associated with science, objectivity sometimes gets compromised.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

One response to “Humans and mass extinction

  1. Steve, thank you for this voice of reason! Although paleobiology is not my field, your cool reasoning is most welcome. Walter

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