Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans


Despite decades of research, the roles of climate and humans in driving the dramatic extinctions of large-bodied mammals during the Late Quaternary period remain contentious. Here we use ancient DNA, species distribution models and the human fossil record to elucidate how climate and humans shaped the demographic history of woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, wild horse, reindeer, bison and musk ox. We show that climate has been a major driver of population change over the past 50,000 years. However, each species responds differently to the effects of climatic shifts, habitat redistribution and human encroachment. Although climate change alone can explain the extinction of some species, such as Eurasian musk ox and woolly rhinoceros, a combination of climatic and anthropogenic effects appears to be responsible for the extinction of others, including Eurasian steppe bison and wild horse. We find no genetic signature or any distinctive range dynamics distinguishing extinct from surviving species, emphasizing the challenges associated with predicting future responses of extant mammals to climate and human-mediated habitat change.

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Figure 1: Modelled potential ranges of megafauna species at 42, 30, 21 and 6 kyr bp.
Figure 2: Temporal changes in global genetic diversity and range size in horse, bison, reindeer and musk ox.
Figure 3: Best-supported demographic models inferred by approximate Bayesian computation model-selection.
Figure 4: Spatial and temporal association between megafauna and Upper Palaeolithic humans.

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Data deposits

Mitochondrial DNA sequences are deposited in GenBank under accession numbers JN570760JN571033.


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This paper is in memory of our friend and colleague Andrei Sher, who was a contributor to this study. Dr Sher died unexpectedly, but his major contributions to the field of Quaternary science will be remembered and appreciated for many years. We are grateful to A. Lister and T. Stuart for guidance and discussions. We thank T. B. Brandt, B. Hockett and A. Telka for laboratory help and samples, and L. M. R. Thrane for his work on the megafauna locality database. Data taken from the Stage 3 project were partly funded by grant F/757/A from the Leverhulme Trust, and a grant from the McDonald Grants and Awards Fund. B.S. was supported by NSF ARC-0909456. We acknowledge the Danish National Research Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation, the Danish Council for Independent Research and the US National Science Foundation for financial support.

Author information

E.W. conceived and headed the overall project. C.R. headed the species distribution modelling and range measurements. E.D.L. and J.T.S. extracted, amplified and sequenced the reindeer DNA sequences. J.B. extracted, amplified and sequenced the woolly rhinoceros DNA sequences; M.H. generated part of the woolly rhinoceros data. J.W., K.-P.K., J.L. and R.K.W. generated the horse DNA sequences; A.C. generated part of the horse data. L.O., E.D.L. and B.S. analysed the genetic data, with input from R.N., K.M., M.A.S. and S.Y.W.H. Palaeoclimate simulations were provided by P.B., A.M.H, J.S.S. and P.J.V. The directly dated spatial latitudinal/longitudinal megafauna locality information was collected by E.D.L., K.A.M., D.N.-B., D.B. and A.U.; K.A.M. and D.N.-B. performed the species distribution modelling and range measurements. M.B. carried out the gene–climate correlation. A.U. and D.B. assembled the human Upper Palaeolithic sites from Eurasia. T.G. and K.E.G. assembled the archaeofaunal assemblages from Siberia. A.U. analysed the spatial overlap of humans and megafauna and the archaeofaunal assemblages. E.D.L., L.O., B.S., K.A.M., D.N.-B., M.K.B., A.U., T.G. and K.E.G. wrote the Supplementary Information. D.F., G.Z., T.W.S., K.A.-S., G.B., J.A.B., D.L.J., P.K., T.K., X.L., L.D.M., H.G.M., D.M., M.M., E.S., M.S., R.S.S., T.S., E.S., A.T., R.W. and A.C. provided the megafauna samples used for ancient DNA analysis. E.D.L. produced the figures. E.D.L, L.O. and E.W. wrote most of the manuscript, with input from B.S., M.H., D.N.-B., K.A.M., M.T.P.G., C.R., R.K.W, A.U. and the remaining authors.

Correspondence to Eske Willerslev.

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Lorenzen, E., Nogués-Bravo, D., Orlando, L. et al. Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature 479, 359–364 (2011) doi:10.1038/nature10574

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