Tag Archives: Pleistocene

The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems

The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems



Large mammalian terrestrial herbivores, such as elephants, have dramatic effects on the ecosystems they inhabit and at high population densities their environmental impacts can be devastating. Pleistocene terrestrial ecosystems included a much greater diversity of megaherbivores (e.g., mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths) and thus a greater potential for widespread habitat degradation if population sizes were not limited. Nevertheless, based on modern observations, it is generally believed that populations of megaherbivores (>800 kg) are largely immune to the effects of predation and this perception has been extended into the Pleistocene. However, as shown here, the species richness of big carnivores was greater in the Pleistocene and many of them were significantly larger than their modern counterparts. Fossil evidence suggests that interspecific competition among carnivores was relatively intense and reveals that some individuals specialized in consuming megaherbivores. To estimate the potential impact of Pleistocene large carnivores, we use both historic and modern data on predator–prey body mass relationships to predict size ranges of their typical and maximum prey when hunting as individuals and in groups. These prey size ranges are then compared with estimates of juvenile and subadult proboscidean body sizes derived from extant elephant growth data. Young proboscideans at their most vulnerable age fall within the predicted prey size ranges of many of the Pleistocene carnivores. Predation on juveniles can have a greater impact on megaherbivores because of their long interbirth intervals, and consequently, we argue that Pleistocene carnivores had the capacity to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore population sizes.


Homo erectus and Middle Pleistocene hominins: Brain size, skull form, and species recognition

Homo erectus and Middle Pleistocene hominins: Brain size, skull form, and species recognition

G. Philip Rightmire


Hominins that differ from Homo erectus, the Neanderthals, and recent humans are known from Middle Pleistocene localities across the Old World. The taxonomic status of these populations has been clouded by controversy. Perhaps the most critical problem has been an incomplete understanding of variation in skull form. Here, both H. erectus and later mid-Pleistocene hominins are the focus of an investigation aimed at clarifying the relationships among brain volume, basicranial dimensions, neurocranial shape, and certain facial characters. Brain size in H. erectus averages about 950 cm3, while in a series of Middle Pleistocene crania from Africa and Europe, volume is about 1230 cm3. If encephalization is the primary mechanism operating in the mid-Pleistocene, then diverse aspects of cranial form cannot all be treated as independent variables. Correlation is utilized to examine the associations among measurements for more than 30 H. erectus crania that are reasonably well preserved. A similar approach is used with the Middle Pleistocene sample. Patterns of covariation are compared in order to assess integration. Next, factor analysis is applied to the H. erectus specimens in an attempt to identify modules, tightly integrated traits that can evolve independently. Studies of the variation within H. erectus are followed by direct comparisons with the Middle Pleistocene population. Discriminant functions facilitate the description of intergroup differences. Traits that vary independently from brain volume include anterior frontal broadening, lateral expansion of the parietal vault, elevation of the lambda–inion chord, and rounding of the sagittal contour of the occipital. This finding helps to resolve the problem of species recognition. Neurocranial proportions as well as characters from the cranial base and face can be incorporated into a differential diagnosis for the mid-Pleistocene sample. Evidence presented here supports arguments for speciation in the Middle Pleistocene.

Full paper:


Highlatitude camel and the evolution of Plestocene cold adapted fauna

Another element of Pleistocene faunal community ancestors has been found.
Reported in the Nature Communications.

Rybczynski, N., Gosse, J. C., Richard Harington, C., Wogelius, R. A., Hidy, A. J. & Buckley, M., 2013: Mid-Pliocene warm-period deposits in the High Arctic yield insight into camel evolution.
–Nature Communications: Vol. 4, pp. 1550 [doi: 10.1038/ncomms2516]

“The mid-Pliocene was a global warm period, preceding the onset of Quaternary glaciations. Here we use cosmogenic nuclide dating to show that a fossiliferous terrestrial deposit that includes subfossil trees and the northern-most evidence of Pliocene ice wedge casts in Canada’s High Arctic (Ellesmere Island, Nunavut) was deposited during the mid-Pliocene warm period. The age estimates correspond to a general maximum in high latitude mean winter season insolation, consistent with the presence of a rich, boreal-type forest. Moreover, we report that these deposits have yielded the first evidence of a High Arctic camel, identified using collagen fingerprinting of a fragmentary fossil limb bone. Camels originated in North America and dispersed to Eurasia via the Bering Isthmus, an ephemeral land bridge linking Alaska and Russia. The results suggest that the evolutionary history of modern camels can be traced back to a lineage of giant camels that was well established in a forested Arctic.”


Pleistocene hippopotamuses and climate-driven body size changes

Were Pleistocene hippopotamuses exposed to climate-driven body size changes?

Paul P. A. Mazza & Adele Bertini

This study proposes a working hypothesis that Mediterranean hippopotamuses, and perhaps European ones as well, reduced their size, sometimes even drastically, from the ‘Mid-Pleistocene Revolution’ (MPR, c.1.2–0.5 Ma) to the Late Pleistocene. In contrast to the Early Pleistocene, during this time period glacial/interglacial cycling was dominated by a 100-ka periodicity, with more extended glacial phases (up to 85 ka) alternating with shorter interglacial phases (up to 15 ka). These changes seem to have somehow affected the size of hippopotamuses. While relatively larger hippopotamuses have been found in warmer and somewhat more humid intervals, data seem to indicate that they might not have grown as large under less favourable conditions, namely during colder and comparatively drier times. This is a possible response to climate-driven fluctuations in food availability, but Pleistocene habitat fragmentation may also have had an influence. Environmental break-up during the late Quaternary led to the isolation of megafauna populations, which underwent modifications similar to those observed in insular mammals. Although the amount of remains available is still limited, it is nonetheless a fact that hippopotamuses changed their body size through time, normally becoming smaller. If the conclusions are confirmed as data continue to accumulate, hippopotamuses might cast doubt on the generality of Bergmann’s rule.


Laura K.

Late Pleistocene climate change and the global expansion of anatomically modern humans

Late Pleistocene climate change and the global expansion of anatomically modern humans
Eriksson et al.
Published online before print September 17, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1209494109


The extent to which past climate change has dictated the pattern and timing of the out-of-Africa expansion by anatomically modern humans is currently unclear [Stewart JR, Stringer CB (2012) Science 335:1317–1321]. In particular, the incompleteness of the fossil record makes it difficult to quantify the effect of climate. Here, we take a different approach to this problem; rather than relying on the appearance of fossils or archaeological evidence to determine arrival times in different parts of the world, we use patterns of genetic variation in modern human populations to determine the plausibility of past demographic parameters. We develop a spatially explicit model of the expansion of anatomically modern humans and use climate reconstructions over the past 120 ky based on the Hadley Centre global climate model HadCM3 to quantify the possible effects of climate on human demography. The combinations of demographic parameters compatible with the current genetic makeup of worldwide populations indicate a clear effect of climate on past population densities. Our estimates of this effect, based on population genetics, capture the observed relationship between current climate and population density in modern hunter–gatherers worldwide, providing supporting evidence for the realism of our approach. Furthermore, although we did not use any archaeological and anthropological data to inform the model, the arrival times in different continents predicted by our model are also broadly consistent with the fossil and archaeological records. Our framework provides the most accurate spatiotemporal reconstruction of human demographic history available at present and will allow for a greater integration of genetic and archaeological evidence.