Throughout Earth’s history, rapid climate changes have precipitated megafauna extinctions. According to new research, abrupt global warming — similar to today’s accelerating temperatures — is to blame for the disappearance of mammoths during the last ice age.
In a new study, Australian researchers compared and contrasted geologic records with the ancient DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating. The results showed that a succession of abrupt warming periods known as interstadials during the Pleistocene matched neatly with significant extinction events.
Until recently, researchers thought sudden and intense cold snaps were to blame for die-offs of large mammals throughout evolutionary history, but instead, the opposite seems to be true.
“This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” study author Alan Cooper, a professor at the University of Adelaide and Director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA, said in a recent press release.
“Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions,” Cooper said. “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.”
The new research corresponds neatly with the extinction of mammoths and giant sloths some 11,000 years ago, as the last ice age came to an end.
Scientists say their work — which was published in the journal Science this week — offers the most comprehensive timeline of climate change and species movement, data that will aid future research projects.
They also say the impacts of mankind on plants and animals shouldn’t be discounted.
“It is important to recognise that man still played an important role in the disappearance of the major mega fauna species,” said co-author Chris Turney, a professor at the University of New South Wales. “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.”