Literature Review: Pleistocene and Holocene

by Carl Strang

Today’s notes are from last year’s literature on the recent ice ages and subsequent prehistoric times. Some are biological in focus, others relevant to past and present climate change.

Coyotes once were bigger and more carnivorous than they are today, according to the following study.

Coyotes once were bigger and more carnivorous than they are today, according to the following study.

Meachen, J.A., A.C. Janowicz, J.E. Avery, and R.W. Sadleir. 2014. Ecological changes in coyotes (Canis latrans) in response to the ice age megafaunal extinctions. PLoS ONE 9(12): e116041. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116041 They measured coyote skulls from 29,000 years ago (La Brea tar pits) to present day, and found a transition from features associated with predation specialization to the present-day omnivory. Another study had found in addition a decrease in body size. They interpret this as a change in predator interactions. When the much larger dire wolf was the other dominant canid, and megafauna were abundant, coyotes could make a good living as specialist predators. Megafauna loss, and associated dire wolf extinction, opened the door for gray wolf immigration from Europe. This new, smaller predator was similar ecologically, but at the same time larger than the coyote, forcing a coyote niche shift to a more generalized diet.

Maher, K., and C.P. Chamberlain. 2014. Hydrologic regulation of chemical weathering and the geologic carbon cycle. Science 343:1502-1504. Kerr, Richard A. 2014. How Earth can cool without plunging into a deep freeze. Science 343:1189. The Kerr news article was based on the Maher and Chamberlain paper. The study looked at the mechanism that limits ice age cooling, preventing it from running away to a pole-to-pole glaciation. Volcanoes add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, warming climate but also dissolving in rainwater, the resultant carbonic acid dissolving rock. The products flow to the sea, are taken up by plankton for skeleton building, and ultimately are buried. This removal process limits carbon dioxide buildup. Most of the dissolved rock is in mountains, and mountain uplift as in the Andes and Himalayas thus is tied to a global thermostat turndown. However, cooling slows the weathering reactions, allowing carbon dioxide to build back up.

Pena, Leopoldo D., and Steven L. Goldstein. 2014. Thermohaline circulation crisis and impacts during the mid-Pleistocene transition. Science 345:318-322. They found evidence for a profound change in oceanic circulation patterns corresponding to the change in glacial cycling from 41-thousand-year to 100-thousand-year durations. They conclude that “North Atlantic ice sheets reached a milestone in size and/or stability” that led to the ocean circulation change, resulting in a greater carbon dioxide drawdown, increased polar glaciation, and setting the pattern for the following 100,00-year cycles.

Guil-Guerrero, J.L., et al. 2014. The fat from frozen mammals reveals sources of essential fatty acids suitable for Paleolithic and Neolithic humans. PLoS ONE 9(1): e84480. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084480 They analyzed the fat chemistry of frozen woolly mammoths, horses and bison from Siberia. The fats were judged to be nutritionally good for human hunters of the time (41,000-4400 years ago). Furthermore, the fats of mammoths and horses were like those of hibernating mammals. The authors suggest that the mammoths and horses hibernated in similar fashion to present-day Yakutsk horses, which move little and mainly stand in sleeping positions during the coldest weather. The mammoth fatty acids suggest derivation from certain lichens in the diet.

Willerslev, Eske, et al. 2014. Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature 506 (7486): 47. DOI: 10.1038/nature12921 A large, multi-national team went into Pleistocene sediments and mummified gut contents, and used reference DNA from herbarium specimens to characterize vegetational changes over the past 50,000 years. They found that the last ice age caused a significant alteration of northern plant communities, greatly reducing forbs while increasing grasses and woody plants. Many of the megafauna herbivores such as woolly rhinoceros and woolly mammoth depended on the forbs for their protein content, and the authors believe that the failure of forb-rich communities to re-form after the ice receded contributed to or even caused megafaunal extinctions. No mention was made of human hunting in the ScienceDaily article describing the study.

Hoffecker, J. F., S. A. Elias, and D. H. O’Rourke. 2014. Out of Beringia? Science 343 (6174): 979. DOI: 10.1126/science.1250768 They reviewed cores taken from the Bering Sea and found that Beringia was not a barren grassland through the glacial times but had significant areas of tundra shrubs and trees. Animals including elk and moose likely lived there, and the likelihood of long-term human occupation seems good. This could provide a way that the ancestors of Native Americans could have been isolated from Asians for the 10,000 years, between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, accounting for the genetic differences comparisons show. Beringia was not glaciated, and summers may well have been like those of today, though winters would have been severe. When the glaciers opened a way by melting, the 15,000-year Native American presence in the continent began as the Beringians moved in.


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