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: 

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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.

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Logbook of Australia’s ancient megafauna

20 11 2019


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 »

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 »

No evidence climate change is to blame for Australian megafauna extinctions

29 01 2016

bw spear throwingLast July I wrote about a Science paper of ours demonstrating that there was a climate-change signal in the overall extinction pattern of megafauna across the Northern Hemisphere between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. In that case, it didn’t have anything to do with ice ages (sorry, Blue Sky Studios); rather, it was abrupt warming periods that exacerbated the extinction pulse instigated by human hunting.

Contrary to some appallingly researched media reports, we never claimed that these extinctions arose only from warming, because the evidence is more than clear that humans were the dominant drivers across North America, Europe and northern Asia; we simply demonstrated that warming periods had a role to play too.

A cursory glance at the title of this post without appreciating the complexity of how extinctions happen might lead you to think that we’re all over the shop with the role of climate change. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Instead, we report what the evidence actually says, instead of making up stories to suit our preconceptions.

So it is with great pleasure that I report our new paper just out in Nature Communications, led by my affable French postdoc, Dr Frédérik SaltréClimate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia.

Of course, it was a huge collaborative effort by a crack team of ecologists, palaeontologists, geochronologists, paleo-climatologists, archaeologists and geneticists. Only by combining the efforts of this diverse and transdisciplinary team could we have hoped to achieve what we did. Read the rest of this entry »