Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Research On NY’s Ice Age Large Mammals

woodland caribou drawing by wikimedia user foresmanNew York State Museum scientists have completed research that reveals when and why large mammals — including caribou, mammoths, and mastodons — re-colonized and ultimately went extinct in New York State after the last Ice Age. This research may help scientists better understand how ecosystems formed and why certain species went extinct after the last Ice Age.

Dr. Robert Feranec, the Museum’s curator of Pleistocene vertebrate paleontology, and Dr. Andrew Kozlowski, the Museum’s glacial geologist, co-authored the research that appears in the most recent issue of the journal Quaternary Research (Volume 85, Issue 2).

At the height of the last Ice Age, approximately twenty-five thousand years ago, the area that is now New York State was nearly entirely covered in ice. As the earth moved from a glacial climate to an interglacial climate and the ice melted, new land was opened to colonization by plants and animals. By carbon dating specimens in the State Museum collections as well as analyzing carbon dates of caribou, mammoths, and mastodons from other published research, Feranec and Kozlowski were able to determine the colonization and extinction patterns of those species following the last Ice Age.

Based on the carbon dates, a pattern in the timing of colonization emerges with caribou appearing first, about 17,000 years ago. Mammoths followed shortly thereafter, arriving when their preferred habitat, a tundra environment, was present in the state. A few thousand years later, mastodons then colonized the state when their preferred habitat, boreal forest, became present.

Interestingly, the scientists found that the pattern of extinction was opposite that of colonization. At the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 12,000 years ago, mastodons went extinct in the state first, followed by mammoths. There are historical records of caribou in the state up to and during the Colonial period (about 200 years ago).

Paleontologists have long debated the cause of the end-Pleistocene extinction when over 50 species of large mammals went extinct in North America. Different arguments have focused on whether the extinction was caused by human-related impacts, such as over-hunting animals, by climate change and subsequent habitat change associated with the shift from a glacial period to an interglacial period, or by a combination of the simultaneous impacts of humans and climate.

Based on this study, at the time of their extinction in the state, the preferred habitats of both mammoths and mastodons were still present; therefore implicating that lack of food or preferred habitat alone could not have been significant contributors to their demise. However, about 1,000 years before these species go extinct, humans enter the state. Feranec and Kozlowski determined that while humans may not have been the only cause in the extinction of mammoths and mastodons in New York, and elsewhere in North America, they likely played a role in the extinction of many species.

Feranec and Kozlowski note that these results not only provide clues to life in the past, but also help provide a basis for understanding more modern concerns, such as the effects of current climatic change on species today and how those species will respond. This study illustrates the need and value of collections-based research to address modern societal issues.

Drawing of caribou by Wikimedia user Foresman.

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3 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Great article. This goes along with a previous article where comments were made that the the major reason these animals were driven to extinction was by climatic forces. Archaic natives, whom we romantically picture as living in total harmony with their environment, had a definite hand in it through the use of fire and advanced stone weapons. One thing I didn’t know was the fact Caribou were still present when the white man started settling NY.

    If man was truly living in harmony with his environment, it seems to me that there would have been little need for following the herds further and further into North America. It might have been more of a circular migration based on seasonal herd movement, much like some far northern peoples do today. Of course as human populations increased, straining the local food supply, some folks would have left for “greener pastures.”

    I believe human population explosions, coupled with sharp reductions in the food supply from hunting the same area repeatedly accounts for much of the larger native migrations across the Americas. Man is the only animal capable of using technology to create changes in the environment.

    If man had been following the retreating glaciers northward across New York, he would have likely marveled at the tremendous waterfalls which created places like Green Lakes State Park or Clark Reservation near Syracuse, which are the remains of drop pools from these waterfalls.

    • AG says:

      Expect in 6 months another “study” to say something different. That’s how scientific theory works. Their is a difference between “history” and “pre-historic”. Even in human communicated history there are differences and discrepancies. But they are much more reliable. Of course we know that humans have always moved to get resources. That’s the whole reason Europeans ended up on this side of the globe. For one thing – we know for sure that guns helped eradicate species much more quickly. It is also true that some cultures decimate animal species more quickly than others. If it was simply a case of man wanting to get rid of large animals – elephants would have disappeared LONG ago. Elephants are not cuddly animals – even though they can be trained. Bull elephants in the wild will readily kill a human. Elephants of course lost habitat – but their numbers didn’t drop so much until guns came into the picture and the illicit ivory trade became so lucrative. Same with lions – in Africa native tribes hunted lions for thousands of years.. Yet they always lived side by side and respected lions. Their numbers didn’t start to fall off the cliff until the last 100 years. That is very similar to the issue of many animals that existed in abundance on this continent when the Europeans got here.