Years of scientific debate over the extinction of ancient species in North America have yielded many theories. However, new findings from J. Tyler Faith, GW Ph.D. candidate in the hominid paleobiology doctoral program, and Todd Surovell, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, reveal that a mass extinction occurred in a geological instant.
During the late Pleistocene, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, North America lost over 50 percent of its large mammal species. These species include mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, among many others. In total, 35 different genera (groups of species) disappeared, all of different habitat preferences and feeding habits.
What event or factor could cause such a mass extinction? The many hypotheses that have been developed over the years include: abrupt change in climate, the result of comet impact, human overkill and disease. Some researchers believe that it may be a combination of these factors, one of them, or none.
A particular issue that has also contributed to this debate focuses on the chronology of extinctions. The existing fossil record is incomplete, making it more difficult to tell whether or not the extinctions occurred in a gradual process, or took place as a synchronous event. In addition, it was previously unclear whether species are missing from the terminal Pleistocene because they had already gone extinct or because they simply have not been found yet.
However, new findings from Faith indicate that the extinction is best characterized as a sudden event that took place between 13.8 and 11.4 thousand years ago. Faith's findings support the idea that this mass extinction was due to human overkill, comet impact or other rapid events rather than a slow attrition.
"The massive extinction coincides precisely with human arrival on the continent, abrupt climate change, and a possible extraterrestrial impact event" said Faith. "It remains possible that any one of these or all, contributed to the sudden extinctions. We now have a better understanding of when the extinctions took place and the next step is to figure out why."
- Faith et al. Synchronous extinction of North America's Pleistocene mammals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908153106
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