Did humans and their fire kill off Australia’s megafauna?

Genyornis. Courtesy of Michael Ströck & Wikimedia Commons.

Timeline, 2005: For those of us who do not live in Australia (and live instead in, say, boring old Texas), the animals that live on that continent can seem like some of the most exotic species in the world. The kangaroo, wombat, and Tasmanian devil, and most of all, the platypus, are high on the list of the unusual and bizarre in the animal kingdom.

But modern-day Australia has nothing on the Australia of 50,000 years ago when humans first arrived from Java. They encountered huge kangaroos, marsupial lions, 25-foot lizards, and tortoises the size of a subcompact car. Yet, within 5000 years, many of these animals had disappeared permanently. And since the dawn of the study of paleontology, researchers have wondered why.

Of course, it’s our fault

Of course, humans feature as the culprits in most scenarios. Just as the first people in the Americas are usually blamed at least in part for the disappearance of the American megafauna, like mammoths or giant sloths, the first people in Australia have also been suspected of hunting these animals to extinction or exposing them to diseases that decimated the populations.

As it turns out, humans may be to blame, but not through direct destruction or disease transmission. Instead, it may be the mastery of fire, the turning point in our cultural history, that ended in the extinction of many species larger than 100 pounds on the Australian continent.

Fire!

Australia’s first people probably set huge fires to signal to one another, flush animals for hunting, clear paths through what was once a mosaic of trees, shrubs, and grasses, or to encourage the growth of specific plants. The byproduct of all of this burning was catastrophic to the larger species on the continent.

The fires, according to one study, wiped out the drought-adapted plants that covered the continent’s interior, leaving behind a desert of scrub brush. The change in plant cover may have resulted in a decrease in water vapor exchange between the earth and the atmosphere with the ultimate effect of ending the yearly monsoon rains that would quench the region. Without the rains, only the hardiest, desert-ready plants survived.

You are what you eat…or ate

How could researchers possibly have elucidated these events of 45,000 years ago? By looking at fossilized bird eggs and wombat teeth. Using isotopic techniques, they assessed the types of carbon present in the bird eggs and teeth that dated back from 150,000 to 45,000 years ago. These animals genuinely were what they ate in some ways, with some isotopic markers of their diet accumulating in these tissues. Because plants metabolize different forms of carbon in different ways, the researchers could link the type of carbon isotopes they found in the egg and teeth fossils to the diet of these animals.

They found that the diet of a now-extinct species of bird, the Genyornis, consisted of the nutritious grasses of the pre-human Australian landscape. Emu eggs from before 50,000 years ago pointed to a similar diet, but eggs from 45,000 years ago indicated a shift in emu diet from nutritious grasses to the desert trees and shrubs of the current Australian interior. The vegetarian wombats also appear to have made a similar change in their diets around the same time.

Or, maybe not

And the species that are still here today, like the emu and the wombat, are the species that were general enough in their dietary needs to make the shift. The Genyornis went the way of the mammoth, possibly because its needs were too specialized for it to shift easily to a different diet. Its teeth showed no change in diet over the time period.

The researchers analyzed 1500 fossilized eggshell specimens from Genyornis and emu to solve this mystery and to pinpoint human burning practices as the culprits in the disappearance of these megafauna in a few thousand brief years. Today’s aboriginal Australians still use burning in following traditional practices, but by this time, the ecosystems have had thousands of years to adapt to burns. Thus, we don’t expect to see further dramatic disappearances of Australian fauna as a result of these practices. Indeed, some later researchers have taken issue with the idea that fire drove these changes in the first place, with some blaming hunting again, and as with many things paleontological, the precise facts of the situation remain…lost in the smoky haze of deep history.

Complex amphibian responses to past climate change

Eastern tiger salamander: Ambystoma tigrinum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We were like gophers, but now we’re like voles

Timeline, 2005: There is a cave in Yellowstone packed with fossils from the late Holocene, from about 3000 years ago. We can glean from this trove of stony bone how different taxa respond to climate change at the morphological and genetic levels and define and make predictions about the current response of the world to such changes.

The cave, which is in a sensitive area of the park off limits to visitors, houses the fossilized bones of rodents, wolves, amphibians, bears, coyotes, beavers, and elk, among others. This fossil cornucopia has yielded so much in the way of stony evidence that sorting it all is in itself a mammoth task. But two climatic stories have emerged from the samples it has yielded.

A global warming story…from the Middle Ages

The first story is about salamanders and climate change. No, it’s not a 21st-century story about global warming, but a Middle Ages story about a hotter planet. From about 1150 to 650 years ago, the earth underwent a brief warming period known as the Medieval Warming Period. During this time, the sea surface temperature was about a degree warmer and overall, the planet was much drier. This climatic anomaly was followed by what many climatologists call the Little Ice Age, a period that ended around 1900.

During the warm and dry period, animals in what would become Yellowstone National Park responded in ways that left clues about how animals may respond today to our warming planet. Amphibians make particularly sensitive sentinels of environmental change, alerting us to the presence of pollutants or other alterations that affect them before larger manifestations are detectable. And they even provide us evidence in their fossils.

Hot times, smaller paedomorphic salamanders

A group from Stanford excavated the fossils of Ambystoma tigrinum (the tiger salamander) from 15 layers at the Yellowstone site and divided them into five time periods based on their estimated age. They then divided the fossils again based on whether they represented the tiger salamander in its larval, paedomorphic, early adult, or later adult stages. The tiger salamander exhibits paedomorphism, in which the animal achieves reproductive capacity or adulthood while still retaining juvenile characteristics. In the case of the tiger salamander, this translates into remaining in the water, rather than becoming a terrestrial adult, and into retaining characteristics like frilly gills. The molecular determinant of whether or not an amphibian undergoes complete metamorphosis from juvenile to adult is thyroid hormone; when levels of this internal signal are low, the animal will remain juvenile.

The researchers found that during the medieval warming period, the paedomorphic salamanders became smaller than they were during cooler times. This outcome would be expected because when water is cooler, thyroid hormone levels will be lower, and the animal will continue growing as a juvenile.

Hot times, larger adult salamanders

On the other hand, the terrestrial adult salamanders were much larger during the warm period than during cooler periods. Again, this outcome would be expected because the heat on land would encourage faster metabolism, which would result in faster growth. The researchers found no difference in actual numbers between groups at cool vs. warm periods, but express concern that drying in Yellowstone today as a result of global warming might reduce the number of aquatic paedomorphs, affecting aquatic food webs.

From amphibians to gopher teeth

The same group also studied DNA from fossilized teeth of gophers and voles discovered in the cave. They found that during the dry period, gophers, who were stuck underground and isolated, experienced genetic bottlenecking, a reduction in diversity that persists today. However, the mobile, above-ground voles sought mates far and wide during the dry, warm period and actually experienced an increase in diversity. The lead researcher in the group compares early groups of isolated humans to the gophers, saying that they would have experienced a loss of diversity. But today’s population, with our ability to travel the globe with ease, is probably undergoing an increase in diversity since we’re able to mate with people a hemisphere away.

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