Climate change likely drove the extinction of North America’s largest animals

New research suggests that overhunting by humans was not responsible for the extinction of mammoths, ground sloths, and other North American megafauna.

A new study published in Nature Communications suggests that the extinction of North America’s largest mammals was not driven by overhunting by rapidly expanding human populations following their entrance into the Americas.

Instead, the findings, based on a new statistical modelling approach, suggest that populations of large mammals fluctuated in response to climate change, with drastic decreases of temperatures around 13,000 years ago initiating the decline and extinction of these massive creatures. Still, humans may have been involved in more complex and indirect ways than simple models of overhunting suggest.

Before around 10,000 years ago, North America was home to many large and exotic creatures, such as mammoths, gigantic ground-dwelling sloths, larger-than-life beavers, and huge armadillo-like creatures known as glyptodons. But by around 10,000 years ago, most of North America’s animals weighing over 44 kg, also known as megafauna, had disappeared.

Researchers from the Max Planck Extreme Events Research Group in Jena, Germany, wanted to find out what led to these extinctions. The topic has been intensely debated for decades, with most researchers arguing that human overhunting, climate change, or some combination of the two was responsible. With a new statistical approach, the researchers found strong evidence that climate change was the main driver of extinction.

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