New research finds grassland expansion drove the decline of giant mammals over the last 4.6 million years.
New research disputes a long-held view that our earliest tool-bearing ancestors contributed to the demise of large mammals in Africa over the last several million years. Instead, the researchers argue that long-term environmental change drove the extinctions, mainly in the form of grassland expansion likely caused by falling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.
Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, led the study, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Chicago, and University of California, Santa Cruz, collaborated for this study.
To test for ancient hominin impacts, the researchers compiled a seven-million-year record of herbivore extinctions in eastern Africa, focusing on the very largest species, the so-called 'megaherbivores' (species over 2,000 lbs.) Though only five megaherbivores exist in Africa today, there was a much greater diversity in the past. For example, three-million-year-old 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afarensis) shared her woodland landscape with three giraffes, two rhinos, a hippo, and four elephant-like species at Hadar, Ethiopia.
When and why these species disappeared has long been a mystery for archaeologists and paleontologists, despite the evolution of tool-using and meat-eating hominins getting most of the blame
The team's analysis reveals that over the last seven million years substantial megaherbivore extinctions occurred: 28 lineages became extinct, leading to the present-day communities lacking in large animals. These results highlight the great diversity of ancient megaherbivore communities, with many having far more megaherbivore species than exist today across Africa as a whole.
Further analysis showed that the onset of the megaherbivore decline began roughly 4.6 million years ago, and that the rate of diversity decline did not change following the appearance of Homo erectus, a human ancestor often blamed for the extinctions. Rather, the team argues that climate is more likely culprit.
The loss of massive herbivores may also account for other extinctions that have also been attributed to ancient hominins. Some scientist suggest that competition with increasingly carnivorous species of Homo led to the demise of numerous carnivores over the last few million years.
The researchers believe that the extinction may be due to some of these carnivores disappeared with their megaherbivore prey