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Megafaunal extinctions driven by too much moisture

Studies of bones from Ice Age megafaunal animals across Eurasia and the Americas have revealed that major increases in environmental moisture occurred just before many species suddenly became extinct around 11-15,000 years ago. The persistent moisture resulting from melting permafrost and glaciers caused widespread glacial-age grasslands to be rapidly replaced by peatlands and bogs, fragmenting populations of large herbivore grazers.

Megafaunal extinctions driven by too much moisture
Alan Cooper inspects ice age bones from the Yukon Palaeontology Program’s collection, Canada, 2015 
[Credit: Julien Soubrier]
Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, has revealed that the ancient bones preserve direct biochemical evidence of the environmental upheavals, which can be traced through time.

Using 511 radiocarbon dated bones from animals such as bison, horse, and llamas the team was able to investigate the role of environmental change in the mysterious megafaunal extinctions, which claimed the vast majority of existing large land animals such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed cats.

Megafaunal extinctions driven by too much moisture
Lead Author Tim Rabanus-Wallace hunts for megafaunal fossils in the Canadian permafrost in 2015 
[Credit: Julien Soubrier]
"We didn't expect to find such clear signals of moisture increases occurring so widely across all of Europe, Siberia and the Americas," says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. "The timing varied between regions, but matches the collapse of glaciers and permafrost and occurs just before most species go extinct.

The international team of researchers, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Oslo, the Yukon Government, and palaeontologists across Russia and Canada, measured nitrogen isotopes preserved in dated ancient animal bones and teeth recovered from permafrost areas and caves across Europe, Siberia, North and South America. They found distinctive biochemical signals reflecting massive increases of moisture on the landscape.

Megafaunal extinctions driven by too much moisture
The study shows that a peak in moisture occurred between the time of the ice sheets melting, and the invasion 
of new vegetation types such as peatlands (data shown from Canada and northern United States)
[Credit: Julien Soubrier]
"Grassland megafauna were critical to the food chains. They acted like giant pumps that shifted nutrients around the landscape," says lead author Dr Tim Rabanus-Wallace, from the University of Adelaide. "When the moisture influx pushed forests and tundras to replace the grasslands, the ecosystem collapsed and took many of the megafauna with it."

"The idea of moisture-driven extinctions is really exciting because it can also explain why Africa is so different, with a much lower rate of megafaunal extinctions and many species surviving to this day,, says Professor Cooper. "Africa's position across the equator means that grassland zones have always surrounded the central monsoon region. The stable grasslands are what has allowed large herbivores to persist -- rather than any special wariness of hunters learned from humans evolving there."

Megafaunal extinctions driven by too much moisture
The head of Blue Babe, a mummified ice age bison, rests recently in a lab at the University of Alaska Museum 
of the North. The bison, uncovered near Fairbanks in 1979, was first described by Dale Guthrie, now
 professor emeritus. Most of Blue Babe's skin was preserved and is now publicly displayed on a
 model at the museum, but the head and horns were kept frozen. Professor Matthew Wooller
 and others are now analyzing them to improve our understanding of Blue Babe's environment.
The work includes extraction of collagen from the bones for nitrogen isotope analysis 
[Credit: Matthew Wooller]
Professor Matthew Wooller, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says: "We find that on different continents the climate changes happened at different times, but they all showed that moisture increased massively just prior to extinction. The really elegant feature of this study is that it produces direct evidence from the fossils themselves -- these extinct creatures are informing us about the climate they experienced leading up to their own extinctions."

Source: University of Adelaide [April 18, 2017]

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