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Computational model created to predict animal extinctions

Researchers at San Diego State University have introduced a computational model to predict the risk of large animal extinctions. This model is inspired by the debated causes of mastodon disappearances during the Late Pleistocene.

This period, marked by mastodons thriving in what is now California against a backdrop of widespread Ice Age glaciers, ended with their extinction around 11,000 years ago.

The model emerges amidst ongoing debates over the causes of extinctions, such as human hunting, climate change, or other factors. It aims to shed light on these mysteries by examining past patterns and ecological dynamics.

The megafauna hunting pressure model

Miriam Kopels, a PhD student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Isaac Ullah, an associate professor of anthropology at San Diego State University, have crafted the “megafauna hunting pressure model.”

The model examines human-animal interactions, life traits, and environmental changes to predict large animal extinctions. By simulating different pressures on animals, it seeks to guide conservation efforts during a critical time for biodiversity.

“We have carefully crafted the model with understandings from anthropology and archaeology about human behavior and how humans interact with nature,” said Ullah. “We’re taking that knowledge and information and encapsulating it so that it can be applied to other cases.”

The giant African buffalo case study

The megafauna hunting pressure model draws inspiration from the giant African buffalo, Syncerus antiquus, which lived alongside humans for centuries before its extinction around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. The debate over its extinction parallels that of the mastodon, with no consensus among scientists.

Subsequently, Kopels and Ullah’s study examined human and animal behaviors, environmental impacts, and incorporated the life history traits of the Cape buffalo, a currently living species, into their model. They adjusted for size differences and other factors to refine their analysis.

Different factors affecting extinction risk

The researchers conducted computer simulations across 24 scenarios, adjusting human hunting intensity, environmental factors like habitat diversity and growing seasons. This approach enabled them to assess how different variable combinations impact the likelihood of extinction for each scenario.

The research indicated that aggressive male buffalo behaviors and unstable climates and food sources heighten extinction risks.

“Those particular animals are really important for the population dynamics,” said Ullah. “If you reduce the number of breeding females by just a small amount, you disrupt the entire breeding cycle for these slow reproductive, large-bodied animals, and just over a few decades that can have a really major impact.”

Consequently, Ullah is extending the model’s use to develop sustainability strategies for heritage cattle in the American Southwest, adapting to changing climates. Furthermore, the model aims to support conservation of at-risk species like black rhinos and desert tortoises. It identifies critical vulnerability points to devise better protection strategies.

Tackling the animal extinction crisis

“We hope that conservation professionals will utilize this tool to simulate how predation, environmental constraints, and animal life history all interact to increase – or decrease – the odds of an extinction event,” said Kopels.

This innovation is a leap forward in conservation science, according to Kopels and Ullah. Their work provides a versatile tool, grounded in archaeological and anthropological insights. It’s adaptable to any species’ reproductive biology, signaling hope in tackling the extinction crisis.

More about animal extinctions 

Animal extinctions have been a natural part of Earth’s history, but the rate has drastically increased in recent times, primarily due to human activities. Extinctions occur when species are unable to adapt to changing environmental conditions or compete with other species for resources. 

Main causes

Natural causes like volcanic eruptions, climate change, and asteroid impacts have historically triggered extinctions. However, in the current epoch, known as the Anthropocene, human actions are the dominant force driving species to extinction.

Habitat destruction 

Habitat destruction is a leading cause, as forests, wetlands, and other natural areas are cleared for agriculture, urban development, and mining. This not only reduces the living spaces of many species but also fragments their habitats, making it difficult for them to find food, mate, and migrate. 


Overexploitation through hunting, fishing, and poaching has also decimated populations, with species like the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon being hunted to extinction.


Pollution, from plastic waste choking marine life to toxic chemicals contaminating water sources, affects animals’ health and reproductive capabilities. Invasive species introduced by human activities can outcompete, prey on, or bring diseases to native species, leading to declines in their populations.

Climate change 

Climate change, fueled by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, is causing temperature and weather patterns to shift more rapidly than many species can adapt to. Coral reefs are bleaching, polar ice is melting, and sea levels are rising, endangering species from polar bears to small island-nesting birds.

The study is published in the journal Quaternary Research.


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