Ancient bones — how old?

22 01 2021

Radiocarbon (14C) dating was developed by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Willard Libby, and has become the predominant method to build chronologies of ancient populations and species using the Quaternary fossil record. I have just published a research paper about 14C dating of fossil bone reviewing the four standard chemical pretreatments of bone collagen to avoid sample contamination and generate accurate fossil ages: gelatinization, ultrafiltration, XAD purification and hydroxyproline isolation. Hydroxyproline isolation is perceived as the most accurate pretreatment in a questionnaire survey completed by 132 experts from 25 countries, but remains costly, time-consuming and not widely available. I argue that (1) innovation is urgently required to develop affordable analytical chemistry to date low-mass samples of collagen amino acids, (2) those developments should be overseen by a certification agency, and (3) 14C users should be more conceptually involved in how (much) 14C chemistry determines dating accuracy. Across the board, scientific controversies like the timing of Quaternary extinctions need not be fuelled by inaccurate chronological data.


Megafauna bones from the Quaternary fossil record. Top: excavation of a partial skeleton of a short-faced kangaroo Procoptodon browneorum at Tight Entrance Cave (Western Australia) [1]: these bones are close to the limit of radiocarbon (14C) dating in a geological context 43000 to 49000 years old. Middle: metacarpal of the extinct horse Hippidion cf. devillei from Casa del Diablo (Peru) 14C dated at 11980 ± 100 years before present (BP) (CAMS-175039) following XAD purification of collagen gelatin [2]. Bottom: collection of skeletal remains of (mostly) red deer Cervus elaphus from El Cierro Cave (Spain) 14C dated at 15520 ± 75 years BP on ultrafiltered gelatin (OxA-27869 and OxA-27870 average) [3].


Scientists have widely been interested in the present and future state of biodiversity. Ecologists (the main audience of this blog) have also looked into the past with pioneering investigations addressing the composition of ancient forests and the origins of agriculture in layers of fossil pollen accumulated in lake sediments [4]. But it took us decades to see the fossil record as a useful tool (combining biological, geochemical and molecular techniques) to answer basic ecological questions. Some of those questions are critical for conserving today’s biodiversity [5, 6]: for example, when did human impacts on ecosystems become global or what extinct species have best tolerated past environmental change and what that means to modern species? [7].

The study of (pre)historic biological events relies one way or another on our ability to time when a certain animal, human, or plant occurred and what environmental conditions they experienced, and relies on concepts borrowed from archaeology (past human activity), palaeontology (fossils), palaeocology (species responses to past environments), and geochronology (age of fossils and/or their geological context). Among the range of chronological methods available to date biological and cultural samples [8], radiocarbon (14C) dating has become the most important for dating bones aged modern to late Quaternary (last ~ 50,000 years). Hereafter, ‘bone’ comprises antler, bone, ivory and teeth. 14C dating of bones is appealing at least for four reasons: 

Read the rest of this entry »





Did people or climate kill off the megafauna? Actually, it was both

10 12 2019

When freshwater dried up, so did many megafauna species.
Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Author provided

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Earth is now firmly in the grips of its sixth “mass extinction event”, and it’s mainly our fault. But the modern era is definitely not the first time humans have been implicated in the extinction of a wide range of species.

In fact, starting about 60,000 years ago, many of the world’s largest animals disappeared forever. These “megafauna” were first lost in Sahul, the supercontinent formed by Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level.

The causes of these extinctions have been debated for decades. Possible culprits include climate change, hunting or habitat modification by the ancestors of Aboriginal people, or a combination of the two.


Read more: What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


The main way to investigate this question is to build timelines of major events: when species went extinct, when people arrived, and when the climate changed. This approach relies on using dated fossils from extinct species to estimate when they went extinct, and archaeological evidence to determine when people arrived.


Read more: An incredible journey: the first people to arrive in Australia came in large numbers, and on purpose


Comparing these timelines allows us to deduce the likely windows of coexistence between megafauna and people.

We can also compare this window of coexistence to long-term models of climate variation, to see whether the extinctions coincided with or shortly followed abrupt climate shifts.

Data drought

One problem with this approach is the scarcity of reliable data due to the extreme rarity of a dead animal being fossilised, and the low probability of archaeological evidence being preserved in Australia’s harsh conditions. Read the rest of this entry »





Climate change and humans together pushed Australia’s biggest beasts to extinction

25 11 2019

people-megafaunaOver the last 60,000 years, many of the world’s largest species disappeared forever. Some of the largest that we generally call ‘megafauna’ were first lost in Sahul — the super-continent formed by the connection of Australia and New Guinea during periods of low sea level. The causes of these extinctions have been heavily debated for decades within the scientific community.

Three potential drivers of these extinctions have been suggested. The first is climate change that assumes an increase in arid conditions that eventually became lethal to megafauna. The second proposed mechanism is that the early ancestors of Aboriginal people who either hunted megafauna species to extinction, or modified ecosystems to put the largest species at a disadvantage. The third and most nuanced proposed driver of extinction is the combination of the first two.

The primary scientific tools we scientists use to determine which of these proposed causes of extinction have the most support are dated fossil records from the extinct species themselves, as well as archaeological evidence from early Aboriginal people. Traditionally, the main way we use these data is to construct a timeline of when the last fossil of a species was preserved, and compare this to evidence indicating when people arrived. We can also reconstruct climate patterns back tens of thousands of years using models similar to the ones used today to predict future climates. Based on the comparison of all of these different timelines, we conclude that abrupt climate changes in the past were influential if they occurred at or immediately before a recorded extinction event. On the other hand, if megafauna extinctions occur immediately after humans are thought to have arrived, we attribute more weight to human arrival as a driver.

Read the rest of this entry »





Logbook of Australia’s ancient megafauna

20 11 2019

FosSahul_transparent_larger

Australia is home to some of the most unique species worldwide, including egg-laying mammals, tree-climbing, desert-bouncing and and burrow-digging marsupials, and huge flightless birds. While these animals are fascinating, the creatures that used to roam Australia’s landscape thousands of years ago were even more remarkable — these included wombat-like beasts as big as rhinos, birds more than two metres tall, lizards more than seven metres long, and a marsupial lion as big as a leopard.

Just how and why these animals went extinct has been challenging scientists for decades. But examining dated fossil records is one of the primary ways we can look into the past. The ever-increasing number of fossils and the advances in dating techniques have produced a wealth of material we can use to reconstruct the long-lost past.

DiprotodonEven with these data, it has been a struggle to gather enough fossils for large-scale analyses because reports of these records are usually scattered across the scientific literature, with no standardised quality control to make them comparable to each other. Designing a way to standardise these records is therefore important to avoid misleading conclusions.

The FosSahul database was first established in 2016 to try to alleviate these problems — it gathered all the fossil specimens for large animals (excluding humans) from the Late Quaternary (up to ~ 1 million years before present) across the region known as ‘Sahul’, the combined super-continent that included New Guinea and Australia when sea levels were much lower than they are today.

While FosSahul was an important step, the database needed to be updated. First, the quality rating of the fossil dates in the original version was a little subjective and lacked transparency in some cases. This is because the database did not capture enough detail to be able to reproduce all the steps leading to a particular quality rating. Second, given that new fossils are discovered regularly, updates are necessary to include the latest research. Read the rest of this entry »





The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

Read the rest of this entry »





Koala extinctions past, present, and future

12 06 2019

Koala

Photo by John Llewelyn

Koalas are one of the most recognised symbols of Australian wildlife. But the tree-living marsupial koala is not doing well throughout much of its range in eastern Australia. Ranging as far north as Cairns in Queensland, to as far west as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the koala’s biggest threats today are undeniably deforestation, road kill, dog attacks, disease, and climate change.

With increasing drought, heatwaves, and fire intensity and frequency arising from the climate emergency, it is likely that koala populations and habitats will continue to decline throughout most of their current range.

But what was the distribution of koalas before humans arrived in Australia? Were they always a zoological feature of only the eastern regions?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’ — the fossil record reveal a much more complicated story.

Read the rest of this entry »





When devils and thylacines went extinct

17 01 2018

devil-thylacine-extinctWe’ve just published an analysis of new radiocarbon dates showing that thylacines (Tasmanian ‘tigers’, Thylacinus cynocephalus) and Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisi) went extinct on the Australian mainland at the same time — some 3200 years ago.

For many years, we’ve been uncertain about when thylacines and devils went extinct in mainland Australia (of course, devils are still in Tasmania, and thylacines went extinct there in the 1930s) — a recent age for the devil extinction (500 years before present) has recently been shown to be unreliable. The next youngest reliable devil fossil is 25000 years old.

So, knowing when both species went extinct is essential to be able to determine the drivers of these extinctions, and why they survived in Tasmania. If the two extinctions on the mainland happened at the same time, this would support the hypothesis that a common driver (or set of drivers) caused both species to go extinct. Read the rest of this entry »





Postdoctoral position re-opened in Global Ecology

18 10 2017

women-are-better-codersI believe it is important to clarify a few things about the job advertisement that we are re-opening.

As many of you might recall, we advertised two positions in paleo-ecological modelling back in July — one in ecological networks, and the other in vegetation modelling.

We decided to do something a little unusual with the vegetation modelling position by only accepting applications from women. We did this expressly to increase the probability of attracting excellent women candidates, and to increase the number of women scientists in our lab.

I’m happy to say that we received many great applications for both positions, and whether or not it was related, most of the applicants for both positions were women (83%). As it turned out, we ended up offering the network position to a woman applicant, but we were unable to find an ideal candidate for the vegetation modelling job (i.e., the one that was originally targeting women only).

Our decision not to appoint anyone in the first round of applicants for the vegetation modelling position was clearly not related to the fact that it a woman-only position, mainly because we had so many excellent women candidates for both positions (and ended up hiring a woman for the position that was open to both genders). In other words, it seems to be a just one of those random things.

That said, we are still in need of a great vegetation modeller (or at least, someone who has the capacity to learn this knowledge), and so we have decided to re-open the announcement to both genders. However, it should go without saying that we particularly encourage women to apply.

The full details of the position, essential and desired criteria, and application process are available here (Vacancy Reference Number 17115). Note that the application closing date is 15 November 2017.

Please distribute this widely among your networks.

CJA Bradshaw





Two new postdoctoral positions in ecological network & vegetation modelling announced

21 07 2017

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With the official start of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in July, I am pleased to announce two new CABAH-funded postdoctoral positions (a.k.a. Research Associates) in my global ecology lab at Flinders University in Adelaide (Flinders Modelling Node).

One of these positions is a little different, and represents something of an experiment. The Research Associate in Palaeo-Vegetation Modelling is being restricted to women candidates; in other words, we’re only accepting applications from women for this one. In a quest to improve the gender balance in my lab and in universities in general, this is a step in the right direction.

The project itself is not overly prescribed, but we would like something along the following lines of inquiry: Read the rest of this entry »





Job: Research Fellow in Palaeo-Ecological Modelling

13 04 2017

© seppo.net

I have another postdoctoral fellowship to advertise! All the details you need for applying are below.

KEY PURPOSE 

Scientific data such as fossil and archaeological records used as proxy to reconstruct past environments and biological communities (including humans) are sparse, often ambiguous or contradictory when establishing any consensus on timing or routes of initial human arrival and subsequent spread, the timing or extent of major changes in climate and other environmental perturbations, or the timing or regional pattern of biological extinctions.

The Research Fellow (Palaeo-Ecological Modelling) will assist in addressing these problems by developing state-of-the-art analytical and simulation tools to infer regional pattern of both the timing of human colonisation and megafauna extinction based on incomplete and sparse dataset, and investigating past environmental changes and human responses to identify their underlying causes and consequences on Australia’s landscapes, biodiversity and cultural history.

ORGANISATIONAL ENVIRONMENT 

The position will be based in the School of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science & Engineering at Flinders University. Flinders University boasts a world-class Palaeontology Research Group (PRG) and the new Global Ecology Research Laboratory that have close association with the research-intensive South Australian Museum. These research groups contribute to building a dynamic research environment that explores the continuum of environmental and evolutionary research from the ancient to modern molecular ecology and phylogeography. The School of Biological Sciences is an integrated community researching and teaching biology, and has a long history of science innovation. The appointee will join an interdisciplinary school of approximately 45 academic staff. The teaching and research activities of the School are supported by a range of technical and administrative infrastructure services.

KEY RESPONSIBILITIES

The key responsibilities and selection criteria identified for this position should be read in conjunction with the Flinders University Academic Profiles for the relevant academic classification (scroll down to Academic Profiles).

The Research Fellow (Palaeo-Ecological Modelling) will work under the direction of the Project Chief Investigator, and will be required to: Read the rest of this entry »





Palaeo-ecology PhD scholarships

1 03 2017

scholarshipWith my new position as Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology at Flinders University, I am in the agreeable position to be able to offer two PhD scholarships to the best candidates from around the world. If you feel that you’re up to the challenge, I look forward to hearing from you.

These projects will be in the following palaeo-ecology topics:

PhD Project #1. Ecological networks to examine community cascades of Late Quaternary megafauna extinctions Read the rest of this entry »





Transition from the Anthropocene to the Minicene

24 09 2016

Going, going ...

Going, going … © CJA Bradshaw

I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to South Africa, not just because it was my first time to the continent, but also because it has redefined my perspective on the megafauna extinctions of the late Quaternary. I was there primarily to attend the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50thAnniversary Celebration conference.

As I reported in my last post, the poaching rates in one of the larger, best-funded national parks in southern Africa (the Kruger) are inconceivably high, such that for at least the two species of rhino there (black and white), their future persistence probability is dwindling with each passing week. African elephants are probably not far behind.

As one who has studied the megafauna extinctions in the Holarctic, Australia and South America over the last 50,000 years, the trip to Kruger was like stepping back into the Pleistocene. I’ve always dreamed of walking up to a grazing herd of mammoths, woolly rhinos or Diprotodon, but of course, that’s impossible. What is entirely possible though is driving up to a herd of 6-tonne elephants and watching them behave naturally. In the Kruger anyway, you become almost blasé about seeing yet another group of these impressive beasts as you try to get that rare glimpse of a leopard, wild dogs or sable antelope (missed the two former, but saw the latter). Read the rest of this entry »





How to find fossils

30 03 2016

Many palaeontologists and archaeologists might be a little put out by the mere suggestion that they can be told by ecologists how to do their job better. That is certainly not our intention.

Like fossil-hunting scientists, ecologists regularly search for things (individuals of species) that are rare and difficult to find, because surveying the big wide world for biodiversity is a challenge that we have faced since the dawn of our discipline. In fact, much of the mathematical development of ecology stems from this probabilistic challenge — for example, species distribution models are an increasingly important component of both observational and predictive ecology.

IMG_1277But the palaeo types generally don’t rely on mathematical models to ‘predict’ where fossils might be hiding just under the surface. Even I’ve done what most do when trying to find a fossil — go to a place where fossils have already been found and start fossicking. I’ve done this now with very experienced sedimentary geologists in the Flinders Rangers looking for 550 million year-old Ediacaran fossils, and most recently searching for Jurassic fossils (mainly ammonites) on the southern coast of England (Devon’s Jurassic Coast). My prized ammonite find is shown in the photo to the left.

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, you’ll probably know that I’m getting increasingly excited about palaeo-ecology, with particular emphasis on Australia’s late-Pleistocene and early Holocene mass-extinction of megafauna. So with a beautiful, brand-new, shiny, and quality-rated megafauna dataset1, we cheekily decided to take fossil hunting to the next level by throwing mathematics at the problem.

Just published2 in PloS One, I’m happy to announce our newest paper entitled Where to dig for fossils: combining climate-envelope, taphonomy and discovery models.

Of course, we couldn’t just treat fossil predictions like ecological ones — there are a few more steps involved because we are dealing with long-dead specimens. Our approach therefore involved three steps: Read the rest of this entry »