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End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals

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Until a few thousand years ago, creatures that could have been from a sci-fi thriller—including gorilla-sized lemurs, 500-pound birds, and crocodiles that weighed a ton or more—roamed the earth. These great beasts, or “megafauna,” lived on every habitable continent and on many islands. With a handful of exceptions, all are now gone.

What caused the disappearance of these prehistoric behemoths? No one event can be pinpointed as a specific cause, but several factors may have played a role. Paleomammalogist Ross D. E. MacPhee explores them all, examining the leading extinction theories, weighing the evidence, and presenting his own conclusions. He shows how theories of human overhunting and catastrophic climate change fail to account for critical features of these extinctions, and how new thinking is needed to elucidate these mysterious losses.

Along the way, we learn how time is determined in earth history; how DNA is used to explain the genomics and phylogenetic history of megafauna—and how synthetic biology and genetic engineering may be able to reintroduce these giants of the past. Until then, gorgeous four-color illustrations by Peter Schouten re-create these megabeasts here in vivid detail.

236 pages, Hardcover

First published November 13, 2018

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Ross D.E. MacPhee

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews
Profile Image for Ian.
764 reviews65 followers
September 2, 2021
“We are in an altogether exceptional period of the earth’s history. We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared… Yet it is surely a mysterious fact, and one that has hardly been sufficiently dwelt upon, this sudden dying out of so many large mammalia, not in one place but over half the surface of the globe.”
- Alfred Russel Wallace – The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876)

The above quote opens this quite fascinating book on the worldwide extinction of megafauna that has taken place over the last 50,000 years, and why this might have happened. The loses were greatest in the Americas and in Australasia. The extinction rate was lower in Eurasia and lowest of all in mainland Africa. The two main suggested causes are human overkill and climate change.

From my own amateur perspective, I’ve always leaned towards human overhunting as the main cause of the extinctions. It was first put forward in the 1960s by an American scientist called Paul S. Martin, who asked whether it was just coincidence that the massive extinctions in the Americas and Australia, and also in places like Madagascar, only occurred after humans first arrived in these locations. The classic case is New Zealand. We know from carbon dating of bones that humans first arrived in New Zealand in about 1280CE, and within a century more than 30 species of flightless birds had gone extinct, including the famous Giant Moa.

That said, the wildlife of islands does seem particularly vulnerable to human predation, and the clear pattern in New Zealand and other island locations may not be replicable in larger continental settings. In most locations the main weakness in the overkill theory is in linking the arrival of humans with the sudden disappearance of large mammals. Much of this relates to arguments about when exactly humans first arrived. For example, recent evidence suggests that humans may have arrived in Australia by 65,000BCE, whereas the megafaunal extinctions in Australia happened after 40,000BCE.

On the whole I thought the evidence for climate change as the culprit is weaker, except in Australia, which seems to have undergone increasing aridity about the time of megafaunal extinctions there. In other parts of the world, the timing doesn’t seem to match with that of major climatic change. The author also puts forward alternative hypotheses, including one of his own, but in the end the book is inconclusive, except perhaps to argue that no one cause provides the full explanation.

The book is full of illustrations like the one on the cover, and these give it the initial appearance of a “young adult” book. It definitely isn’t though, and the author seems very well qualified. Personally, I quite liked the illustrations.

The book has challenged my own bias over this subject and has left me much better informed than before.

Those extinct animals were so amazing! What a pity they’ve gone.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,211 reviews104 followers
August 22, 2019
Many of us (even if we are not professional zoologists) are still interested in the history of life on earth, and yes, in particular why there was such a massive and fast rate of megafaunal extinctions on a global scale in the late Pleistocene (and to a certain extent also spilling over into the early Holocene). And indeed, I am definitely part of this crowd, as what caused the extinctions of mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, wooly rhinoceroses and other mega-gigantic Pleistocene animal species has always both intrigued me and indeed equally troubled me a trifle (as I for one, in my readings over the years on this very subject, have definitely found the stubbornness of many scientists a bit problematic, because even though I certainly do believe that human involvement in the megafaunal extinctions of the late Pleistocene is likely not to be disregarded and even most probably a major contributing factor, I still have always questioned why so often humans and especially human hunting practices were being seen and are being seen as the ONE AND ONLY REASON for the extinctions of gigantic animals at the end of the Pleistocene and that there were/are supposedly no other reasons and scenarios involved and even to be remotely considered).

And indeed, I thus originally also approached Ross D.E. MacPhee's End of the Magafauna: The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals with quite a bit of reading trepidation, as I certainly did not want to peruse yet another tome blaming humans for absolutely everything and that there supposedly were no other causes involved, that no other scenarios and factors might have also contributed to the Pleistocene extinctions of many (if not most) gigantic animal species. But fortunately, I absolutely need not have worried. For Ross D.E. MacPhee does a truly wonderful and above all remarkably balanced job showing and analysing (and in a manner that is both readable, understandable and accessible even for non scientists and biologists) the many reasons that have been proposed over the years as to why the megafauna might have become extinct (focussing of course and naturally very heavily on humans, on especially Paul Martin's "overkill" hypothesis, but also clearly pointing out that while most scientists of today do strongly believe that human presence and the fact that we colonised so many erstwhile human-free landmasses during the late Pleistocene probably and even likely had much negative influence on the endemic animal species present there, but no, that Paul Martin's theory that humans basically hunted the megafaunal animals to death and to extinction is no longer seen as the only and perhaps even the most likely factor, that there are probably multiple reasons why the gigantic animal species of the Pleistocene generally became extinct, that the extinctions likely were caused by a combination of explosive and to and for the animals affected devastating scenarios and that well, we might never actually be able to know the exact and total causes of why these massive extinctions occurred, in such a short period of geologic time, and globally at that).

Four stars for End of the Magafauna: The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals, for albeit that Ross D.E. MacPhee’s presented narrative and Paul Schouten's accompanying illustrations are definitely worth five stars in and of themselves, on the Kindle, unfortunately, the artwork in particular is in my humble opinion visually often rather blurry, much too small and sometimes not even all that logically organised with regard to the author's text. And therefore yes, while I do indeed very highly recommend this book, I also strongly suggest getting yourself a traditional dead tree copy of End of the Magafauna: The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals and to not bothter with the e-book (and this especially if you are equally interested in both Ross D.E. MacPhee's printed words and Pete Schouten's pictures).
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews347 followers
June 22, 2019
A beautiful book, with wonderful illustrations by Australian artist Peter Schouten. The illustrations alone are worth the price of admission, if you are a paleoart fan. There were some VERY strange creatures around, not very long ago. Very few survive today. Why?

As always, please read the introductory material above first. This book is, in large part, an updating and reply to Paul Martin’s classic “Twilight of the Mammoths”, which I liked a lot: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

So the essence of this book is, why did the megafauna die off, worldwide? In the Americas, as Martin pointed out, the extinctions happened pretty much at the same time as people arrived, around 13,000 to 12,000 years ago. That’s still true, but MacPhee points out weaknesses in Martin’s arguments. Even so, people HAD to be involved: the correspondence of their dates of arrival, and the dates of the extinctions, are too close to be coincidence.

But the scientific debate continues, and remains unresolved — except for extinctions within historic time, or on islands. Those are almost all due to humans. The island species are particularly vulnerable, and he gives the details of the “island syndrome”, an unfortunate evolutionary trap that has recurred many times.

One new-to-me possibility for the extinctions is disease: perhaps something like rinderpest or septicemia, both of which have caused calamitous die-offs (but only one extinction) in historic times. Various other possibilities are discussed, and I was surprised how little has been resolved, in the 50+ years since Martin came up with his “overkill” idea. Research continues, and the eventual explanation will likely be some combination of the bad things he lists. Humans are almost certainly involved.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those interested in recent (by geologic standards) evolutionary biology, and for paleoart fans. The writing gets a bit technical at times, but he provides a good glossary.

Here’s a detailed review of the book, the best I found online: https://inquisitivebiologist.wordpres...
Profile Image for Philip.
1,439 reviews75 followers
May 22, 2023
Excellent overview of Earth's prehistoric-to-surprisingly recent (50,000 to 500 years ago) megafauna, as well as the various theories explaining - still inconclusively - their strange disappearance. Would have given it 5 stars, except for a very few minor quibbles:

- While highly readable, it did come off as just a little textbooky, (at least to someone like me, who struggles with both science and textbooks at the best of times). And while there are a large number of excellent illustrations, they are largely pastoral - I would have loved more pictures of saber-toothed cats taking down giant sloths or mastodons, but what we get are largely benign grasslands full of familiar and benign-looking animals, with captions like "(2) is a kangaroo, but three times as large as a modern kangaroo; (3) is a flightless moa, twice as large as a modern ostrich; and (4) is an elephant, but just half the size of a modern elephant;" i.e., too much this:

...and not enough this:

- Similarly, I would have enjoyed more photos of actual skeletons - such as those found at the amazing La Brea Tar Pits museum in (amazingly) downtown Los Angeles.

As to the science, I was surprised to learn that there is still no consensus as to why all these critters disappeared, since there are serious issues with both the "climate/environmental change" and "man as the ultimate invasive species" theories. At the same time, newer explanations - such as a combination* of messed-up climate changes followed by a human coup de grâce; "hyperdisease;" or a still-to-be-identified extraterrestrial cause such as another meteor hit - are still in the theoretical stages, with a lot of hard field work yet to be done.

Also surprising (but obvious once pointed out) was the realization that despite the apparent diversity we see in the modern animal world, we are today living in a comparative biological desert. Indeed, all that remains of true mammalian megafauna are the elephants and rhinos of Africa and South Asia, whereas such creatures - and oh-so-many more - once roamed all the continents save Antarctica:

And so this book has important messages and implications for our own future, as whatever the causes of the last cycle of major extinctions, human impact on the climate and species overkill are certainly the main contributors to our current wave of species loss, (see the announcement just this week that the Sumatran rhino has become extinct in Malaysia; I still remember reading about them being found in the wild just 20 years ago when I lived in Kuala Lumpur).

So overall, a fascinating story - especially for someone like me who grew up addicted to everything dinosaur, (and yes, to an 8-year-old kid back in the early '60s, these guys were still considered dinosaurs!).


* And so I'm just reading Peter Brannen's The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses, and he's a big proponent of the "combination of causes" - i.e., "perfect storms" - explanation for most mass extinctions. Quoting the University of Chicago's David Jablonski in describing our current situation, he says:

"We're not just warming, we're not just pollution, we're not just overexploitation, we're piling it all on simultaneously...You've got to get away from single-factor explanations. I suspect a lot of the major events in the history of life involve perfect storms, and we're one of them. If we just did one thing, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but we're doing
everything simultaneously as hard and fast as we can."
Profile Image for Charles.
Author 40 books262 followers
February 16, 2019
Short and succinct, but a very good introduction to possible explanations for a host of megafauna (big animals) extinctions that seem to have occurred in the last 10 to 20,000 years, much of which may have involved human activities. As the author indicates, one size probably doesn't fit all as far as explanations for these losses are concerned. Such issues as overhunting, climate change, disease and other factors are discussed. A quick read and not overly technical so that an educated layperson would be able to understand it. I read this from the library but will probably buy a copy to keep as a reference for my class in Evolutionary Psychology.

Profile Image for Hilary "Fox".
2,069 reviews60 followers
April 22, 2019
End of the Megafauna presents all the current theories about what might have caused the megafaunal extinction at the end of the Pleistocene era. The most popular theory among the general public, the one that gets touted again and again, is that the megafaunal extinction was a human caused event. It's easy to understand why this has become something akin to common knowledge. We, after all, are one of the major driving forces behind the "Sixth Extinction" event now. Why should it have been different then?

The problem is, human predation was likely not the cause of the bulk of the megafauna extinctions. On islands, it may have been a different cause, but on all the major continents? Human driven extinction makes little sense.

The book bit by bit puts Pleistocene life into context - the temperature changes over the long period in which monsters walked the earth, the evolution of humans alongside them, the various migrations that have been either theorized or proven. Then, it presents the Overhunting Hypothesis... and why many archaeologists and anthropologists discount the theory wholeheartedly. The trouble is the conservationists still quote it as if it is a known fact, when in reality the mystery is still very much alive. Overhunting and Climate Change as the cause of megafaunal extinctions just don't hold up.

The other theories as for what drove the largest beasts into extinction are many, but all have about as much weight to them as the climate change and overhunting theses. Hyperdisease and asteroid impact are the two largest ones, with the asteroid impact still beginning to find things to support it... but not going far enough. More research needs to be done, and more people need to be open-minded about alternative explanations as studies move forward.

I appreciated the end of the book presenting some facts about deextinction and rewilding. While I disagree that Pleistocene Park and other such places would end up being large zoos for megafauna (the idea of rewilding, after all, is to rewild), I hope that that postscript might in the end lead people to read more specialized writing about those topics.

All in all? Great read.
1,087 reviews
September 21, 2018
ARC provided by Edelweiss.

There are a lot of books about dinosaurs and their extinction, but not as many on the Ice Age extinction of animals like the smilodon or mastodon. With a background in anthropology, this was an update on some of the material I learned in college, which was really interesting. Also, we didn't cover worldwide extinctions, but focused mostly on North America. A lot of the information presented in this book was new to me and help me to better understand how this phenomenon worked (or didn't) worldwide. Plus, the full-color illustrations were gorgeous! A very interesting read!
Profile Image for Shrike58.
659 reviews12 followers
November 5, 2020
Mostly dealing with the demise of the "megafauna" of the title in the Late Pleistocene, MacPhee's goal is to walk you through the arguments as to whether the disappearance of these creatures can mostly be attributed to raw climate change, or whether Paul S. Martin's hypothesis that Neolithic humans were sufficiently numerous and motivated to be the main agent of extinction of large mammals; particularly in North America. The conclusion that MacPhee comes to is neither of these two explanations are supported by enough evidence to really be embraced, at least as a general all-purpose explanation. While some readers will be annoyed at the lack of a definitive answer, MacPhee is to be praised for a look at how science actually works, and the value of restraint before jumping to conclusions.

If nothing else you can kick back and enjoy the numerous fine illustrations gracing this book.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
2,131 reviews90 followers
January 27, 2019
This was a surprisingly readable discussion of a longstanding scientific question: why did so much of the prehistoric megafauna, like woolly mammoths and ground sloths, go extinct? MacPhee sets the stage and then lays out the arguments in a conversational way. Was it overhunting by prehistoric humans? Climate change? Or something else? The illustrations, which depict the animals in their habitats and include extant animals that co-existed with them for scale and realism, are wonderful. This book is both fascinating and fun to look at.
Profile Image for Tim Robinson.
698 reviews54 followers
May 16, 2019
Were humans responsible for the mass extinction of megafauna in the last twenty thousand years? We just don't know.

Beautifully illustrated.
Profile Image for Sandra.
973 reviews55 followers
December 12, 2018
So much attention is given to dinosaurs and their extinction, but the megafauna have always been more interesting to me, probably because they relate more to current animals so they are easier to picture. Who wouldn’t want to see a giant sloth in real life?! Anyway, I was glad to see this title listed as a new release at my library and I scooped it up.

It was a very interesting book complete with beautiful illustrations. Discussions of various theories of extinction ensued when really it was likely a combination of a few. And, like the mystery of Roanoke, will we ever really know? Only time and further discoveries will tell.

I would have liked more detail about the megafauna in general though. What did they do, eat, etc. How did they live and interact with each other? I’ll need a different volume for that, it seems.
Profile Image for Elentarri.
1,598 reviews20 followers
June 17, 2019
This provides a good introduction and overview to the extinctions that occurred in the Cenozoic Era, focusing mainly on the megafaunal extinction at the end of the Pleistocene era. The author discusses the evidence (or lack thereof), the various hypotheses, and the opposing or contradictory evidence and opinions. Also discussed is the effect that early humans had on the megafauna and if human actions may be responsible for some of the extinctions. This is an interesting, well thought-out book that is lavishly illustrated and a joy to read.
Profile Image for Tim Milligan.
127 reviews1 follower
December 31, 2018
This book changed my mind on the likely causes of Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, and did so in a surprisingly readable way. I practically tore through this book, which is really something for a nonfiction natural history book. The book notably contains numerous really wonderful paintings of prehistoric animals (and some extant species) in their natural environments. Want some great illustrations of what ground sloths may have looked like? Look no further!
3,851 reviews79 followers
March 4, 2022
End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals by Ross D.E. MacPhee (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2019) (560.179) (3625).

This book is filled with colorfully-rendered artist’s representations of history’s “megafauna,” which generally refer to the large or giant animals in a given era, habitat, or geological period, whether the animals are extinct or extant. It is usually applied to animals that weighed over one hundred pounds.

So what happened to them? Experts have not reached consensus as to the cause of these mass extinctions. Their fate is the subject here.

Author Ross D.E. MacPhee reports that each of the generally accepted hypotheses as to what caused the megafaunal disappearance are all problematic. Each popular theory is by turns discussed and dismissed. A comet or other space invader? Nope; no crater. Overhunting by humans? Extremely unlikely, as there is a complete absence of archaeological evidence to support this theory. An ice-age or a global warming event? No. Among other things, diverse parts of earth were impacted differently.

The author believes that the most likely reason for the die-offs and extinction events are human-related and were caused by the unwitting introduction by humans of pathogens unknown in a given habitat. The theory is that early humans carried disease-causing organisms across the earth during the African diaspora. This type of pathogen, when introduced into previously-unexposed populations, can cause deadly pandemics on a global scale.

This theory provides a plausible explanation for the disappearances. But what evidence does the author believe indicates that humans were ultimately responsible? Simply this: the fact that remnant megafaunal populations existed on islands so remote that humans never reached them until recent recorded history. The most jarring evidence of this is the fact that mammoths are proven to have survived on Alaska’s remote Wrangel Island until 2500 BCE, which postdates by many thousands of years the die-off of the rest of the species. For the sake of perspective, this means that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were already ancient before the last surviving mammoths on Wrangel Island died!

My rating: 7/10, finished 3/4/22 (3625).

Profile Image for Christopher.
Author 2 books92 followers
October 8, 2019
Very interesting. Could have used more space dedicated to the alternative new theories since the entire work is pretty theoretical anyway. I was also surprised at how little emphasis was put on all the potential invasive species being introduced to each other by the exposure of Beringia and not just humanity. Considering the mass die offs that resulted from say, The Columbian interchange, to say nothing about when North and South America first collided in Panama, it seems to me that the answer could very well be mass die offs but not attributable to humanity alone but rather to every species migrating and becoming an invasive species. This would also explain much-though not all-of the geographic distribution of megafauna die offs.
Profile Image for Chris Geggis.
50 reviews2 followers
December 11, 2019
If I wrote a complete review, it would be a spoiler. I'll just say this... The current evidence is well presented, and I think the theory presented by the author at the end of the book has a high probability of being correct. I enjoyed this deep dive into this topic, even though it's not my favorite topic. I would have liked a few more graphs and charts and a few less illustrations, but that's me. I did enjoy the illustrations, but I didn't need quite that many. If this is a topic that you find interesting, I would highly recommend it.
89 reviews
May 28, 2020
oh to be a meridiungulate in the grasslands of pleistocene south america
Profile Image for Al Burke.
Author 2 books166 followers
April 8, 2019
Really enjoyed this. The pictures look great, and the author addresses various different extinction theories and their strengths and flaws. I liked his approach, thought he was very open and fair minded. His final hypothesis might surprise some.
Profile Image for Michael Scott.
725 reviews138 followers
March 5, 2019
TODO full review:
i End of Megafauna is a book about the extinction of massive fauna around the world, in Near Time---at the end of the Late Pleistocene (Last Glacial) and at the start of the Holocene (Present Interglacial, before modern civilizations ~ 16th century CE).
+/--- The book introduces megafauna, but this introduction only spans about 13/160+ pages. There is really a dearth of relevant information about what this fauna was about. Perhaps in another book...
+ The curious case of megafauna extinction is made obvious. We have plenty of evidence megafauna existed but is no more, and want to know why.
++ The book presents the two main competing theories for the causes of extinction, human overhunting and climate change. This is not a spoiler, because the real value of the book is in the enumeration of details, evidence in support of, and evodemce and arguments against each theory.
+/- There is an ode to Paul Martin, but not to an equivalent figure to represent the climate change theory.
+ The book also presents three alternative theories, including the author's own, concerning a wipeout due to disease.
++ Nice, albeit short, discussion about de-extinction and re-wilding (or re-zooing).
+++ Excellent visuals by Peter Schouten. I particularly liked the inclusion of present-day animals, for size reference (yes, the others look like megafauna), and the addition in some cases of the key image in high contrast and enumerated (plus the legend, museum- or National Geographic style).
--- For me, the main weakness of the book is that there is simply insufficient evidence, either way, to make the narrative compelling. With no breakthroughs to truly speak about, I am puzzled why the author even thought about writing the book at all.
--- Another weakness is that the book does not stray much in the realm of thought-provoking analysis. Either there is nothing really to talk about or the author chooses not to engage, but there is little beyond trying to solve the problem of extinction of megafauna (of which there is also little).
--- Consequence of the previous two points, much as I like reading about developments in various scientific fields, and much as I am curious about the natural world of the past, I found the work less than exciting.
--- The Kindle edition detracts from the visuals, especially if read on e-ink andmor black-and-white devices. Both the loss of paging and the loss of color were diminishing the pleasure of reading.
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 1 book35 followers
December 26, 2020
Breathtaking art work combined with thoughtful data driven analysis made this book an enjoyable and engrossing read. My opinion of the cause is heavily slanted towards human induced reasons, but as the author explains over a lengthy discourse, the reality was much more nuanced. Indeed, if one looked on a case by case, area by area basis, the extinctions were far from uniform in pattern, with obvious overkill on islands (New Zealand, Madagascar to a lesser extent) at one end of the spectrum, and more likely from multiple causes at the continental scale. Here a sharp distinction can be made between the Americas, where the die out happened over a relatively quick thousands of years, compared to slower rates in Australia and Eurasia. It was most definitely not a clear cut black and white either or argument, but a combination of other likelihoods like rapid climate change and possibly human introduced diseases. However the unevenness in the way different species were affected (i.e. mainly the large fauna over 100kg) and the variability in the timing when they occurred disfavors the climate change theory, which would logically have had a more uniform effect over the entire planet, and affected all species big and small.

The jury is still out on a very complex issue, and more data points with better dates would go much toward its unraveling, if that is even possible. The sad and lamentable fact is that these wonderfully diverse megafauna, so brilliantly depicted by the artist in multiple two page dioramas, are gone for good.
223 reviews
August 1, 2019
An excellent overview of the debates concerning one of the most perplexing extinction events in natural history: the abrupt disappearance tens of thousands of years ago of dozens of megafauna species across the world, with Africa and South Asia generally unscathed. Two schools of thought have dominated the debate. One, favoured by ecologists and journalists (myself included), holds that the waves of humans who left Africa, where our species evolved, had a hand in the mega-extinctions. This is known as the "overkill hypothesis". The other school of thought, generally favoured by archeologists and palaeontologists, sees climate change as the main culprit.
MacPhee, who is a wonderful writer and thoughtful scientist, looks at the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments. Without being completely dismissive of either he is clearly sceptical about "overkill" while raising schools of thought that see human predation, while not regarded as the main cause, at least playing a role. MacPhee's own hypothesis is that invading waves of humans may have unleashed pandemics of infectious diseases that felled the big critters. He admits that the evidence on this front is thin but it would certainly make sense.
Ny own thesis, which I have outlined with my concept of the "faunal poverty line," (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/artic... ), is that if overkill was the main cause or one of the factors behind the extinctions, then one of the reasons must surely have been human/wildlife conflict. Most of the big animals that vanished, from a human perspective, were quite simply dangerous. This would also help explain why a number of extremely large and dangerous reptiles also died out. It is surely no coincidence that the most of the megafauna that vanished would have presented mega-threats to humans. This is why I contend that Africa compared to the rest of the world has been "burdened by beasts" and that the pre-historic extinction events, regardless of their cause, have had historical as well as ecological consequences that shaped and continue to shape our modern world.
To return to MacPhee, he notes that there are other possibilities "yet to be revealed", and that the cause of the extinctions will long be "a field of intellectual ferment." This elegant and beautifully illustrated book, which has made me rethink some of my own views, is a welcome addition on this fascinating front.
Profile Image for Fantasia ☮HippieMoonchild☮.
1,342 reviews95 followers
July 10, 2019
Rating: 3.4 / 5

Beautifully illustrated and compellingly told (at first), I was captivated by this book on a subject that I know very little about.

Unfortunately, it does get repetitive after a while, and so I stopped about halfway through and left it unfinished. Still, a decent rating for what I did read. One of these days I will make a "not what I expected" category of bookshelves and this one may have to go on it. I expected more exposure to megafauna in this and ended up getting more theory extinction-wise. Extinctions are well and good, but I think the author could have spent more time describing the species that went extinct so that I could care about them more.

At this point, all I'm certain of is that they were "big". *clap clap*
Profile Image for Richard Reese.
Author 3 books170 followers
September 16, 2019
Megafauna are animal species that can grow to weigh more than 100 pounds (44 kg). Our hominin ancestors emerged in Mother Africa maybe four million years ago. They walked upright on two legs, and eventually learned how to kindle fire, and hunt large game. These ancestors have been suspected of influencing the extinctions of some African megafauna that occurred between about 2.5 and 1.4 million years ago.

Much later, after Homo sapiens emerged, many more species of megafauna disappeared. These extinctions happened on the five continents outside of Africa, mostly between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago. The term “megafauna extinction” usually refers to this era, when humans were colonizing the planet, and feasting on large herbivores. Questions about the cause of these extinctions have inspired many theories, more than a little screechy controversy, and a few bloody noses.

End of the Megafauna is the latest book on this subject. It was written by Ross MacPhee, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It helpfully updates the discussion with the findings of recent research. It is also extremely careful not to present a firm conclusion about the cause of the extinctions, for the simple reason that absolute certainty is impossible — almost all of the puzzle pieces will never be found. Every theory contains an uneven mix of strengths and weaknesses. The two theories that are taken most seriously are climate change and human impacts.

Today, few believe that climate change could have been the sole cause. The one exception is the extinctions in Sahul, the landmass of Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania, when they were joined together by low sea levels. In Sahul, evidence of early human activities is quite scarce. Elsewhere, climate change theories are now getting less and less support.

Charts of global climate trends during the Pleistocene are a lively zigzag of sharp spikes and dives. The lineages of most megafauna species extend back millions of years, and most of them managed to survive through numerous big swings. But, the actual timing of megafauna extinction spasms rarely corresponds with climate transitions. Climate certainly impacted regional ecosystems — woolly mammoths were not delighted when tundra was displaced by annoying forests. Nor were herds on the Sahara, when lush grasslands withered into scorching desert.

The arguments for human hunting are far more compelling. As the human diaspora migrated out of Africa, and colonized one continent after another, extinctions repeatedly followed their arrival. Hey! This is important! Extinction spasms did not precede human colonization, and there is no controversy about this. While megafauna extinctions shadowed the arrival of humans in the U.S. and Canada, the nearby Caribbean islands were unaffected — until humans first set foot on them several thousand years later. Islands around the world were the last regions to get zapped.

A primary voice in the hunting discussion was Paul Martin, who first published his overkill hypothesis in 1966. Working at sites in North America, and using the latest specimen dating technology, he concluded that most of the extinctions there took place during a thousand year period, following the first arrival of humans from Siberia. At least 50 species of large animals vanished — horses, camels, mammoths, and so on.

During this same thousand year period, humans also colonized all of South America, where the megafauna got hammered even harder. In Martin’s vision, as the colonists spread across the New World, they routinely ran into animals that had never before seen a human, and therefore had no fear of them. The naïve critters were easy to kill, and delicious to devour. Before they could figure out that humans were deadly dangerous, they were roasting over the fire. Hunting bands lived well, ate well, grew in number, and expanded into new regions.

It takes a lot of imagination to explain how so many species, over so vast an area, disappeared so quickly, when everything was roadless wilderness, and primitive humans were few in number. Martin envisioned the thousand year process in the Americas as something like a blitzkrieg (lightning war) of overkill. Hunters spread out from Alaska to the bottom of South America, rushing forward like a bloody tsunami wave, killing all they could, and leaving little behind — fanatical annihilation. Do you find that a bit hard to believe? I do.

With regard to the possibility of overhunting, MacPhee expresses doubts about some aspects of Martin’s hypothesis. Martin wasn’t the first to propose overhunting, he joined many others, but his views were the most extreme. In the book, the less extreme views get little mention.

Obviously, from an evolutionary timeframe, the New World spasm of extinctions was lightning fast. But, from a human timeframe, a thousand years can seem like quite a while. I expect that at least a few of my readers are younger than 200. A much earlier extinction spasm in Africa took place over hundreds of thousands of years, when our ancestors were fewer in number, had smaller bodies and brains, and still had much to learn about the art of hunting.

Killing megafauna just slightly in excess of their fertility rate could wipe them out over the passage of centuries. It wasn’t so much about the intensity of the hunting as the fragility of the hunted. Over a thousand years, and many generations of hunters, the process of extinction may have been essentially imperceptible. Scarcity increased at a gradual pace.

Elizabeth Kolbert noted that modern elephants do not reach sexual maturity until their late teens, each pregnancy takes 22 months, and there are never twins. Because they reproduce so slowly, mammoths could have been driven to extinction by nothing more than modest levels of hunting. Peter Ward estimated that if hunters had regularly killed just two percent of the mammoths each year, the extinction process would have taken 400 years — too slow for multiple generations of hunters to notice.

MacPhee noted that he often jabbers with other scientists about the extinctions. He has found that the majority believe that humans played a major role, but not all agree that our role was exclusive. Out of curiosity, I read several reviews of his book that were written by other readers, and was surprised to see that some of them, with great relief, believed that the book’s message was that humans had been found innocent. It seems that in the desire to appear completely impartial, clear factual statements about the elephant in the room seem to have gotten diluted enough to be confusing.

If we believe that the ancestors of environmentally conscious Native Americans (or anyone else’s wild ancestors) were responsible for causing extinctions, it’s tempting to presume that the human species must be inherently flawed. Therefore, there is no urgent need to care about anything. To avoid this, educators, and other concerned adults, seem to have a tendency to deliberately downplay or deny the darkness of reality, because if kids (or anyone else) comprehend the truth, intense despair will reduce them to walking dead zombies. But, if we sweep reality under the bed, their hope will survive, and they can fully devote their lives to a heroic adventure in mindless, planet-thrashing Sustainable Growth™. As they say, we live in interesting times.

Overall, MacPhee wrote a fine book. I had just two issues. (1) The discussion of human hunting was limited to Martin. Other non-blitzkrieg, imperceptible overkill viewpoints were not included. (2) If some readers concluded that humans were innocent, then maybe some important facts were not stated with sufficient emphasis. Megafauna extinction is a prickly subject.

I very much appreciated the numerous illustrations by Peter Schouten. His megafauna portraits add a powerful dimension to the reader experience. Schouten’s illustrations portray megafauna living in their ecosystems. They seem to conjure some deep ancestral memories of the reality we evolved in — a world of abundant life, fresh air and pure water, home sweet home. Today, those same ecosystems would look like highways, factories, shopping districts, cornfields, suburbs — populated by busy mobs of the megafauna known as Homo sapiens. So much has been lost.

Google images also presents many excellent pictures in response to searches for “megafauna extinction.”
Profile Image for Benjamin Barnes.
801 reviews13 followers
August 6, 2019
The Art work in this book is exceptionally beautiful. I Would buy it again just for the Picturw❤❤❤
655 reviews14 followers
April 12, 2019

Over the last 50,000 years (Late Pleistocene) numerous large mammal species have gone extinct. All large continents had thriving populations but with the exception of Africa, the large mammals have disappeared. MacPhee examines the various theories as to why these extinctions occurred and the evidence for and against each. He professes to be neutral in the discussion and seems to succeed.

The author gets into the detail early in the book with chapters on the the earth's climate over the last 50,000 years, on the dispersal of humans out of Africa, and only early scientific thinking once evidence of the die-offs accumulated.

Paul Martin has been the most vocal proponent of the theory that megafaunal extinction was due to hunting by humans. His idea is that the naivete of the animals to humans and their hunting methods allowed the human migrants into North America to kill so efficiently that they completely wiped out many species. The surplus of food allowed the human population to explode and stimulate further migration.

The other very popular theory is that climate change caused the megafaunal extinctions. As certain climatic events are known to be major and yet did not cause extinctions, the climate change theories attribute the extinctions to a loss of ecological equilibrium at critical times. There is little data which ties specific climate events to specific extinctions.

The debate between these leading theories has resulted in much work clarifying the dates at which individual species disappeared from various locations. This has been of particular importance in Eurasia and the Sahul (the Australia / New Guinea landmass), where extinctions have clearly not correlated well with the arrival of man.

Objections to the over-hunting theory include the lack of archaeological evidence for massive kills, the need for humans to have organized hunting on a scale that has never been seen in early societies, and the fact that most earlier hunters concentrated on smaller game.

The author devotes a chapter to examining the idea of prey naivete, which has been well documented in isolated island populations where the species had no predators.

MacPhee characterizes the two most prominent theories - climate change and human hunting - as having now reached an intellectual impasse. He then examines some of the alternate theories:
- food web disruption - large mammals may have been less able to change their diet in the face of climate disruptions
- hyperdisease - infectious disease may have been introduced by humans migrating to North America
- fireball - a bolide hitting earth would have disrupted North America

Ecologists and conservation biologists tend to favour the hunting hypothesis, while paleontologists and archaeologists tend to prefer the climate change theory. MacPhee points out that the various megafaunal extinctions around the world probably do not have a common cause.

In the epilogue, the author describes work being done to re-create some of the extinct animals, most notably George Church's work on the Woolly Mammoth. Also notable are efforts to bring back the Passenger Pigeon and the American Chestnut tree.

The book includes many terrific illustrations by Peter Schouten depicting the life of the animals in their habitats.

Profile Image for C.a. Anderson.
Author 8 books63 followers
July 22, 2019
Enjoyed the book. Anything to do with pre-historic animals I will read. The book explains all the different theories of why the large animals went extinct before and during the ice ages. The illustrations are outstanding.
Profile Image for Two Readers in Love.
561 reviews14 followers
September 23, 2019
My husband and I both enjoyed this book so much!

This book manages to present several hypothesis for Near Time extinction to a novice without dumbing it down so much that the sense of the science behind the debate gets lost. The excellent illustrations brought back that sense of wonder I had as a child, imagining Jefferson's sloth lumbering across my backyard on the Appalachian plateau.

Makes us wish we were Quaternary paleomammologists. In addition to my childhood favorites like the giant ground sloths, I discovered the flightless 3 foot Cuban Cursorial Owl, the Bibymalagasy, the giant beaver, the dwarf Cyprus Elephant, and the more recent Falkland Islands Warrah.
372 reviews1 follower
February 16, 2019
This book is skillfully written and beautifully illustrated and competently sums up all the theories about the extinction of the megafauna of the Americas in particular. Still, there is no clear cut explanation of the phenomina.
Profile Image for Bill.
516 reviews2 followers
January 15, 2019
A well thought out and closely considered study of the animal extinctions at the end of the last ice age. The book comes to no hard conclusions, instead it repeats all the past and current theories on this topic. From this we can draw our own conclusions or agree with the author that a more detailed analysis of all the facts are needed to make a considered conclusion. The book is magnificently illustrated with diorama like pictures of these long gone animals in their environment.
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