Literature Review: Pleistocene

by Carl Strang

The following notes complete my review of last year’s scientific literature. These studies looked at the most recent epoch, the Pleistocene, and focus on the megafauna, the large mammals.

Mastodon fossil, an iconic megafaunal species

Edwards, Ceiridwen J., et al. Ancient Hybridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline. Current Biology, 07 July 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.058     As described in a ScienceDaily article. This new mitochondrial DNA study places the female ancestor of all current polar bears in Ireland 50,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age. Brown and polar bears once were both circumpolar, or nearly so, and the ebb and flow of the glaciers brought them in and out of contact, providing hybridization opportunities. The authors mention that this continues today, with the retreat of polar ice bringing the two species more into contact, and several recent hybrid individuals are known. The researchers indicate that this process needs to be taken into consideration both in understanding the nature of these species and in conservation planning.

Long, Charles A., and Christopher J. Yahnke. 2011. End of the Pleistocene: elk-moose (Cervalces) and caribou (Rangifer) in Wisconsin. J. Mammal. 92:1127-1135. They describe the northernmost caribou fossils found to date in Wisconsin, from Marathon County. The Cervalces (also known as stag moose) from the same site is the first for the state, and northernmost for the species. The study location was at the boundary between the glacier’s Green Bay Lobe and the driftless area. The age of the caribou antler is placed at 11,260-11,170 years ago. The elk-moose was from 12,920-12,790 years ago. The caribou probably was of the more southern woodland caribou species. The older elk-moose fossil was found in a sediment layer suggesting it lived close to the edge of the glacier, in more of a tundra environment.

Eline D. Lorenzen, et al. Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10574     As described in a ScienceDaily article. They looked at a range of genetic, archeological and other evidence, and found that the megafauna that went extinct and those that survived in the northern hemisphere represent a complex picture. All had survived previous glacial cycles by finding refugia in warm periods, with populations just large enough to continue. Some were able to do so again after the most recent glacial retreat, for instance caribou and musk oxen in the far north and bison in the North American plains, and survive to this day. Others did not, and in at least most of these cases humans are implicated, either by preventing retreat to refugia or by decimating the reduced populations.

Waters, Michael R., et al. 2011. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunting 13,800 years ago at the Manis site, Washington. Science 334:351-353. (also interpreted in a news article on p. 302 of the same issue). They found a spear point made of mastodon bone, imbedded in the rib of an adult male mastodon. It is dated to several hundred years before the Clovis culture. The location near the coast in Washington State is consistent with a coastal spread of people from Beringia, where bone spear points also were used. This also supports an extended period of megafauna hunting, further pointing toward human hunting as a factor in extinctions (a long period of hunting, even if it only removes animals slightly faster than they can reproduce, increases the importance of that mortality factor).

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