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After mastodons and mammoths, a transformed landscape
Date:11/19/2009

d the extinction of 34 genera or groups of large animals, including icons of the ice age such as elephant like mastodons and ground sloths the size of sport utility vehicles. "Our data are not consistent with a rapid, 'blitzkrieg' overkill of large animals by humans," notes Gill, nor was their decline due to a loss of habitat.

However, the work does seem to rule out a recent hypothesis that a meteor or comet impact some 12.9 thousand years ago was responsible for the extinction of ice age North America's signature large animals.

The study was conducted using lake sediment cores obtained from Appleman Lake in Indiana, as well as data obtained previously by Robinson from sites in New York. Gill, Williams and their colleagues used pollen, charcoal and the spores of a dung fungus that requires passage through a mammalian intestinal tract to complete its life cycle to reconstruct a picture of sweeping change to the ice age environment. The decline of North America's signature ice age mammals was a gradual process, the Wisconsin researchers explain, taking about 1,000 years. The decline in the huge numbers of ice age animals is preserved in the fossil record when the fungal spores disappear from the record altogether: "About 13.8 thousand years ago, the number of spores drops dramatically. They're barely in the record anymore," Gill explains.

Like detectives reconstructing a crime scene, the group's use of dung fungus spores helps establish a precise sequence of events, showing that the crash of ice age megafauna began before plant communities started to change and before fires appeared widely on the landscape.

"The data suggest that the megafaunal decline and extinction began at the Appleman Lake site sometime between 14.8 thousand and 13.7 thousand years ago and preceded major shifts in plant community composition and the frequency of fire," notes Williams.

Absent the large herbivores that kept them in check, such tree spec
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Contact: John Williams
jww@geography.wisc.edu
608-265-5537
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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