Ecological impacts of the late Quaternary megaherbivore extinctions

Authors

  • Jacquelyn L. Gill

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA
    2. Environmental Change Initiative, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
    Current affiliation:
    1. School of Biology & Ecology, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Bangor, ME, USA
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Summary

As a result of the late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions (50 000–10 000 before present (BP)), most continents today are depauperate of megaherbivores. These extinctions were time-transgressive, size- and taxonomically selective, and were caused by climate change, human hunting, or both. The surviving megaherbivores often act as ecological keystones, which was likely true in the past. In spite of this and extensive research on the causes of the Late Quaternary Extinctions, the long-term ecological consequences of the loss of the Pleistocene megafauna remained unknown until recently, due to difficulties in linking changes in flora and fauna in paleorecords. The quantification of Sporormiella and other dung fungi have recently allowed for explicit tests of the ecological consequences of megafaunal extirpations in the fossil pollen record. In this paper, I review the impacts of the loss of keystone megaherbivores on vegetation in several paleorecords. A growing number of studies support the hypothesis that the loss of the Pleistocene megafauna resulted in cascading effects on plant community composition, vegetation structure and ecosystem function, including increased fire activity, novel communities and shifts in biomes. Holocene biota thus exist outside the broader evolutionary context of the Cenozoic, and the Late Quaternary Extinctions represent a regime shift for surviving plant and animal species.

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