It couldn’t have been us!

29 05 2012

A few months ago I asked Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania to put together a post on his recent Science paper regarding Australian megafaunal extinctions. It seems that it stirred, yet again, some controversy among those who refuse to accept (mainly archaeologists) that humans could have had anything to do with pre-European extinctions. Indeed, how could humans possibly have anything to do with extinctions?!

Like Corey, I am mainly interested in current environmental problems. But now and then I wade into the debate over the extinction of Australia’s Pleistocene megafauna [editor’s note: Chris literally wrote the book on Australian mammal extinctions over the last 50,000 years], those huge animals that wandered over the Australian landscape until about 40,000 years ago.

This is an endlessly fascinating topic. The creatures were wonderful and bizarre – it’s great fun doing work that lets you think about marsupial lions, giant kangaroos, geese bigger than emus, echidnas the size of wombats, and the rest. The cause of their extinction is perhaps the biggest mystery, and the most vexed controversy, in the environmental history of Australia. And for reasons that I will explain in a minute, solving this mystery is profoundly important for our understanding of contemporary Australian ecology.

The latest bit of work on this is a paper that a group of us (including Corey’s close colleague, Barry Brook) published in Science. You can see it here (if you don’t have access to Science, email me for a copy). So far, research on this problem has concentrated on dating fossils to find out when megafauna species went extinct. Several recent studies have found evidence for extinction between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, which is about when people first came to Australia. But the conclusion that people caused a mass extinction of megafauna has been strenuously criticised, because so far it is based on only a few species with good collections of dates. The critics argue that other species disappeared before humans arrived, maybe in an extended series of extinctions caused by something else, like a deteriorating climate.

This argument over fossils will be with us for a long time. Because finding and dating fossils is such hard, slow work, the fossil record will inevitably give a seriously incomplete picture of what happened. One way around this problem would be to analyse the fossil record using mathematical approaches that take into account the problem of incomplete sampling. Corey is lead author of a recent paper that introduced a great new set of tools for this, and we are part of a group that is currently assembling a complete database of all recent dates on Australian fossils so that we can analyse them using these tools. Stay tuned for the result. Read the rest of this entry »