Marsupial megafauna, Aborigines and the overkill hypothesis: application of predator-prey models to the question of Pleistocene extinction in Australia

Authors

  • DAVID CHOQUENOT,

    1. Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory and Co-operative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas, P.O. Box 496, Palmerston, Northern Territory 0801, Australia
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  • D. M. J. S. BOWMAN

    1. Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory and Co-operative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas, P.O. Box 496, Palmerston, Northern Territory 0801, Australia
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Abstract

The worldwide extinction of large terrestrial mammals in the late Pleistocene has been attributed to climate change, overkill by human populations colonizing new continents, or some combination of these two processes. Lack of precision in chronologies for human colonization and mega- faunal extinction suggests that the role of overkill will be difficult or impossible to resolve from the archaeological and fossil record. In this study, we used a simple two species predator-prey model to examine the population density and hunting efficiency of a colonizing Aboriginal population necessary for overkill to have led to extinction (equilibrium density=0), of a range of different sized megafauna (250–1000 kg bodyweight) inhabiting an hypothetical tract of north Australian Eucalyptus savanna. We referred our modelling to this region because estimates of contemporary Aboriginal population density arguably set an upper limit for those occurring during the Pleistocene, and data are available on harvesting rates of large introduced mammals such as buffalo. Modelling results indicated a compensatory trade-off between the effect of Aboriginal population density and hunting efficiency (measured as the rate of effective search for prey) on equilibrium megafauna densities. The modelling also demonstrated that although intrinsic rate of population increase and density at carrying-capacity for mammals increase with declining body size, smaller megafauna would have been more readily exterminated than larger megafauna because they would have been harvested at a higher rate to satisfy the demand for meat. However, while at contemporary Aboriginal densities it appears plausible that over-harvesting could have affected the fate of smaller megafauna (<250 kg), hunting efficiencies required to drive medium (500 kg) and larger (1000 kg) sized megafauna to extinction appear unrealistically high. This conclusion would be reinforced if Aborigines were able to switch prey at low megafauna density, a contingency not considered in our model. Collectively, these results suggest that for overkill to have driven medium to large marsupial megafauna extinct in the northern Eucalyptus savannas, Aboriginal densities must have been considerably higher than contemporary levels, or Aboriginal hunters astonishingly efficient. Alternatively, climate change in the late Pleistocene may have played an important role in the extinction of Australian megafauna.

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