New evidence links humans to megafauna demise

Jan 21, 2010
Artist's reconstruction of the half-tonne Palorchestes azael, an extinct Australian giant marsupial which was similar to a ground sloth (Picture credit: Peter Schouten).

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new scientific paper co-authored by a University of Adelaide researcher reports strong evidence that humans, not climate change, caused the demise of Australia's megafauna -- giant marsupials, huge reptiles and flightless birds -- at least 40,000 years ago.

In a paper published today in the international journal Science, two Australian scientists claim that improved dating methods show that humans and megafauna only co-existed for a relatively short time after people inhabited Australia, adding weight to the argument that hunting led to the extinction of large-bodied species.

According to Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts from the University of Wollongong and Professor Barry Brook from the University of Adelaide, new methods to directly date bones and teeth of show that megafauna fossils and Aboriginal tools do not all date from the same period.

"Debate about the possible cause of these late Pleistocene extinctions has continued for more than 150 years, with scientists divided over whether or the arrival of humans has been responsible for their demise," Professor Brook says.

"Australia was colonised during a time when the climate was relatively benign, supporting the view that people, not climate change, caused the extinctions here," he says.

But one site in western NSW - Cuddie Springs - stood out as an anomaly. Fossils of super-sized kangaroos, giant birds and the rhino-sized Diprotodon (the largest marsupial ever to roam Australia) were found in the same as stone tools, leading some scientists to previously claim "unequivocal evidence" of a long overlap of humans and megafauna.

However, Professor Roberts -- the lead author of the Science paper "And Then There Were None?" -- says direct dating of fossils shows that the artefacts and megafauna fossils at the Cuddie Springs site were mixed together over many thousands of years, long after the giant animals had died.

"These results provide no evidence for the late survival of megafauna at this site," Professor Roberts says.

"Given that people arrived in between 60,000 and 45,000 years ago, human impact was the likely extinction driver, either through hunting or habitat disturbance," he says.

Professor Brook says previous claims for sites containing younger megafauna - such as in Kangaroo Island, eastern Victoria and the highlands of Papua New Guinea - should also be considered suspect in the light of these revised, older dates for the Cuddie Springs fossils.

Explore further: Study pumps up the volume on understanding of marine invertebrate hearing

Related Stories

Human role in megafauna extinction: study

Apr 27, 2006

The case is mounting for a human role in the mass extinction of giant animals that once ranged across Australia according to new research which challenges results from a site long claimed to clear people as the main cause ...

Lessons learned from drought deaths 40,000 years ago

Nov 27, 2006

Drought-stricken Australia should heed a warning from a new study that shows a series of massive droughts killed giant kangaroos and other "megafauna" in south-east Queensland 40,000 years ago, according to ...

Rediscovering the dragon's paradise lost

Sep 30, 2009

The world's largest living lizard species, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is vulnerable to extinction and yet little is known about its natural history. New research by a team of palaeontologists and ar ...

Recommended for you

Ninety-eight new beetle species discovered in Indonesia

13 hours ago

Ninety-eight new species of the beetle genus Trigonopterus have been described from Java, Bali and other Indonesian islands. Museum scientists from Germany and their local counterparts used an innovative approa ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

denijane
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2010
Interesting, this article: http://www.reuter...20100121 suggests that the megafauna survived 5000 years after humans arrived. Pretty long time indeed to claim that it was destroyed by hunting.
As for habitat disturbing - what, humans from 60 000 years ago arrived in huge numbers, cut the trees and built skyscrapers? I'm sorry, but this looks little bit far fetched. I mean, Australia is big island, it's hard to believe that a small number of people can disturb the habitat of all big creatures crawling there without killing them off in reasonable period of time. They co-existed for 5000 years!!!Obviously they weren't that deadly to each other.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.