Letters to Nature

Nature 431, 684-689 (7 October 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature02890; Received 26 August 2003; Accepted 27 July 2004

There is an Erratum (17 March 2005) associated with this document.

Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth

A. J. Stuart1, P. A. Kosintsev2, T. F. G. Higham3 & A. M. Lister1

  1. Department of Biology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK
  2. Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, 620144 Ekaterinburg, Russia
  3. Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit,University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3JQ, UK

Correspondence to: A. J. Stuart1 Email: Tony@megafauna.freeserve.co.uk

The extinction of the many well-known large mammals (megafauna) of the Late Pleistocene epoch has usually been attributed to 'overkill' by human hunters, climatic/vegetational changes or to a combination of both1, 2. An accurate knowledge of the geography and chronology of these extinctions is crucial for testing these hypotheses. Previous assumptions that the megafauna of northern Eurasia had disappeared by the Pleistocene/Holocene transition2 were first challenged a decade ago by the discovery that the latest woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island, northeastern Siberia, were contemporaneous with ancient Egyptian civilization3, 4. Here we show that another spectacular megafaunal species, the giant deer or 'Irish elk', survived to around 6,900 radiocarbon yr bp (about 7,700 yr ago) in western Siberia—more than three millennia later than its previously accepted terminal date2, 5—and therefore, that the reasons for its ultimate demise are to be sought in Holocene not Pleistocene events. Before their extinction, both giant deer and woolly mammoth underwent dramatic shifts in distribution, driven largely by climatic/vegetational changes. Their differing responses reflect major differences in ecology.


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