Article

Megafaunal isotopes reveal role of increased moisture on rangeland during late Pleistocene extinctions

Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

The role of environmental change in the late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions remains a key question, owing in part to uncertainty about landscape changes at continental scales. We investigated the influence of environmental changes on megaherbivores using bone collagen nitrogen isotopes (n = 684, 63 new) as a proxy for moisture levels in the rangelands that sustained late Pleistocene grazers. An increase in landscape moisture in Europe, Siberia and the Americas during the Last Glacial–Interglacial Transition (LGIT; ~25–10 kyr bp) directly affected megaherbivore ecology on four continents, and was associated with a key period of population decline and extinction. In all regions, the period of greatest moisture coincided with regional deglaciation and preceded the widespread formation of wetland environments. Moisture-driven environmental changes appear to have played an important part in the late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions through alteration of environments such as rangelands, which supported a large biomass of specialist grazers. On a continental scale, LGIT moisture changes manifested differently according to regional climate and geography, and the stable presence of grasslands surrounding the central forested belt of Africa during this period helps to explain why proportionally fewer African megafauna became extinct during the late Pleistocene.

  • Subscribe to Nature Ecology & Evolution for full access:

    $99

    Subscribe
  • Purchase article full text and PDF:

    $32

    Buy now

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber? Log in now or Register for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    et al. Abrupt warming events drove late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover. Science 349, 602–606 (2015).

  2. 2.

    et al. Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions. Sci. Adv. 2, e1501682 (2016).

  3. 3.

    , , , & Assessing the causes of late Pleistocene extinctions on the continents. Science 306, 70–75 (2004).

  4. 4.

    et al. Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature 506, 47–51 (2014).

  5. 5.

    , & Evidence for a δ15N positive excursion in terrestrial foodwebs at the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in south-western France: implications for early modern human palaeodiet and palaeoenvironment. J. Hum. Evol. 69, 31–43 (2014).

  6. 6.

    New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions. Nature 441, 207–209 (2006).

  7. 7.

    Rapid body size decline in Alaskan Pleistocene horses before extinction. Nature 426, 169–171 (2003).

  8. 8.

    Megafauna moves nutrients uphill. Curr. Biol. 26, R1–R5 (2016).

  9. 9.

    Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe. The Story of Blue Babe (Chicago Univ. Press, 1990).

  10. 10.

    Origin and causes of the mammoth steppe: a story of cloud cover, woolly mammal tooth pits, buckles, and inside-out Beringia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 20, 549–574 (2001).

  11. 11.

    et al. Steppe–tundra transition: a herbivore-driven biome shift at the end of the Pleistocene. Am. Nat. 146, 765–794 (1995).

  12. 12.

    , , , & Ice-age megafauna in Arctic Alaska: extinction, invasion, survival. Quat. Sci. Rev. 70, 91–108 (2013).

  13. 13.

    Classification of natural communities. Bot. Rev. 28, 1–239 (1962).

  14. 14.

    et al. The 15N natural abundance (δ15N) of ecosystem samples reflects measures of water availability. Funct. Plant Biol. 26, 185–199 (1999).

  15. 15.

    & Kangaroo metabolism does not cause the relationship between bone collagen δ15N and water availability. Funct. Ecol. 20, 1062–1069 (2006).

  16. 16.

    , & Bone as a stable isotope archive for local climatic information. Quat. Sci. Rev. 23, 959–965 (2004).

  17. 17.

    , , & Climatic influence on the isotopic composition of bone nitrogen. Nature 322, 822–823 (1986).

  18. 18.

    , & Pleistocene megafauna from eastern Beringia: paleoecological and paleoenvironmental interpretations of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope and radiocarbon records. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 261, 30–46 (2008).

  19. 19.

    & Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis of northwest European horse bone and tooth collagen, 40,000 BP–present: palaeoclimatic interpretations. Quat. Sci. Rev. 23, 977–991 (2004).

  20. 20.

    , & Evidence for shifting environmental conditions in southwestern France from 33,000 to 15,000 years ago derived from carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 natural abundances in collagen of large herbivores. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 216, 163–173 (2003).

  21. 21.

    , & Megafauna extinction in South America: a new chronology for the Argentine pampas. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 425, 41–49 (2015).

  22. 22.

    et al. Life and extinction of megafauna in the ice-age Arctic. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 14301–14306 (2015).

  23. 23.

    et al. Pattern of extinction of the woolly mammoth in Beringia. Nat. Commun. 3, 893 (2012).

  24. 24.

    et al. Rapid environmental changes in southern Europe during the last glacial period. Nature 400, 740–743 (1999).

  25. 25.

    et al. Radiocarbon chronology of the last glacial maximum and its termination in northwestern Patagonia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 122, 233–249 (2015).

  26. 26.

    , , , & Musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) of the mammoth steppe: tracing palaeodietary and palaeoenvironmental changes over the last 50,000 years using carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis. Quat. Sci. Rev. 102, 192–201 (2014).

  27. 27.

    late Pleistocene and Holocene mammal extinctions on continental Africa. Earth Sci. Rev. 128, 105–121 (2014).

  28. 28.

    et al. The evolutionary origin and population history of the grauer gorilla. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 159, S4–S18 (2016).

  29. 29.

    et al. Genomic legacy of the African cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus. Genome Biol. 16, 1–20 (2015).

  30. 30.

    , , & Disentangling the impacts of climate and human colonization on the flora and fauna of the Australian arid zone over the past 100 ka using stable isotopes in avian eggshell. Quat. Sci. Rev. 151, 27–57 (2016).

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide, North Terrace, South Australia 5005, Australia.

    • M. Timothy Rabanus-Wallace
    • , Elen Shute
    • , James Breen
    • , Bastien Llamas
    •  & Alan Cooper
  2. Alaska Stable Isotope Facility, Water and Environmental Research Center, Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA.

    • Matthew J. Wooller
  3. College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA.

    • Matthew J. Wooller
  4. Yukon Palaeontology Program, Department of Tourism and Culture, Government of Yukon, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6, Canada.

    • Grant D. Zazula
  5. School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, Bedford Park, South Australia 5042, Australia.

    • Elen Shute
  6. Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, Postbox 1028, Blindern, N-0315 Oslo, Norway.

    • A. Hope Jahren
  7. Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, Russian Academy of Sciences, 202 8 Marta Street, 620144 Ekaterinburg, Russia.

    • Pavel Kosintsev
  8. Curator Emeritus, Quaternary Paleontology, Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Alberta T5N 0M6, Canada.

    • James A. Burns
  9. Robinson Institute, University of Adelaide, North Terrace, South Australia 5005, Australia.

    • James Breen

Authors

  1. Search for M. Timothy Rabanus-Wallace in:

  2. Search for Matthew J. Wooller in:

  3. Search for Grant D. Zazula in:

  4. Search for Elen Shute in:

  5. Search for A. Hope Jahren in:

  6. Search for Pavel Kosintsev in:

  7. Search for James A. Burns in:

  8. Search for James Breen in:

  9. Search for Bastien Llamas in:

  10. Search for Alan Cooper in:

Contributions

A.C. conceived the project, collected samples and coordinated laboratory work. M.T.R.-W. compiled data from the literature, conceived and implemented analyses, and constructed the figures. All authors contributed to data interpretation. The manuscript was written by M.T.R.-W. and A.C., with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to M. Timothy Rabanus-Wallace or Alan Cooper.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods 1–3; Supplementary Text 1–5; Supplementary Figures 1–20; Supplementary References 1–5; Supplementary Code; Supplementary Bibliography

CSV files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Dataset 1

    Dataset used in analysis.