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Mammoths and Heat: Like Other Mega-Fauna, Warming Hurt

Jul 23, 2015 07:13 PM EDT

Mammoths have something in common with the mass extinction of several other large animals, or megafauna: New research shows that they died as a result of abrupt warming much like the man-made temperature increases today.

That is, a team lead by paleontologists and other scientists from the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales recently published their learnings in the journal Science, saying that short, rapid warming events called interstadials in the last ice age or Pleistocene (60,000 to 12,000 years ago) aligned with major extinctions before humans arrived.

They also say that the last glacial maximum and other extreme cold periods seem unrelated to the extinctions.

"Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions. When you add the modern addition of human pressures and fragmenting of the environment to the rapid changes brought by global warming, it raises serious concerns about the future of our environment," observed University of Adelaide professor Alan Cooper, in a release.

The researchers detected a pattern 10 years ago in ancient DNA studies suggesting the rapid disappearance of megafauna, and thought at first they were related to cold snaps. But as they tested more fossil DNA with improved carbon dating and temperature records, they found the opposite.

The scientists say that man still played a role: "The abrupt warming of the climate caused massive changes to the environment that set the extinction events in motion, but the rise of humans applied the coup de grace to a population that was already under stress," said Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales, in a release

The scientists say that with their new statistical methods, they've developed a very precise record of climate change and species movement in the Pleistocene.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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