Mammoths Killed by Abrupt Climate Change

July 24, 2015 / Australia, Oceania
Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

Woolly mammoth restoration at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia Photo by WolfmanSF/Wikimedia

Abrupt warming, that closely resembles the rapid man-made warming occurring today, is being credited as a major factor in repeated mass extinction events of large animals.

In new research, published in the journal Science, an international team led by researchers from Australia’s University of Adelaide and University of New South Wales used advances in analyzing ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and other geologic records to determine that short, rapid warming events, known as interstadials, recorded during the last ice age or Pleistocene (60,000-12,000 years ago) coincided with major extinction events even before the appearance of man.

This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns. Alan Cooper, University of Adelaide Professor, lead author and Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA

By contrast, extreme cold periods, such as the last glacial maximum, do not appear to correspond with these extinctions.

Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions. 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. Alan Cooper, University of Adelaide Professor, lead author and Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA

The researchers came to their conclusions after detecting a pattern, 10 years ago, in ancient DNA studies suggesting the rapid disappearance of large species. At first the researchers thought these were related to intense cold snaps. ‘

However, as more fossil-DNA became available from museum specimen collections and through improvements in carbon dating and temperature records that showed better resolution through time, they were surprised to find the opposite. It became increasingly clear that rapid warming, not sudden cold snaps, was the cause of the extinctions during the last glacial maximum.

The research helps explain further the sudden disappearance of mammoths and giant sloths that became extinct around 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

It is important to recognise that man still played an important role in the disappearance of the major mega fauna species. 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 grâce to a population that was already under stress. Chris Turney, University of New South Wales Professor

In addition to the finding, the new statistical methods used to interrogate the datasets (led by Adelaide co-author Professor Corey Bradshaw) and the new data itself has created an extraordinarily precise record of climate change and species movement over the Pleistocene.

This new dataset will allow future researchers a better understanding of this important period than has ever been possible before.

[via The University of Adelaide]

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Comments (2)

  1. Adrian
    August 16, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    University of Adelaide is in Australia. South Australia

    • Scott Falkingham
      August 10, 2015 at 8:12 pm

      Updated. Thanks!

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