Nothing kills a beautiful theory faster than an ugly fact, to paraphrase Thomas Huxley. But what happens when you have three competing theories and two new facts that point in opposite directions? Welcome to the increasingly confusing picture of what happened to the mammoths and mastodons of North America, along with the other dominant mammal species of the late Pleistocene.
For a number of years, scientists have been debating over two possible culprits that might explain the big die-off of megafauna. One is severe climate change, brought about by the onset of the Younger Dryas global-cooling event. Another is overhunting by a newly arrived human population in North America known as the Clovis culture. More recently, a third hypothesis claims that a comet impact or airburst over the Laurentide ice sheet triggered the changes that caused the animal population collapse (see my article in the September 2009 issue of Sky & Telescope.
All of these scenarios, or any combination of them, hinge on the fact that the big mammals died off rather abruptly starting around 12,900 years ago. This matches the onset of the climate change and comes right after Clovis appears on the scene. It also coincides with evidence that appears to support the comet hypothesis, including lots of tiny “nanodiamonds” that proponents say may have been generated in the impact and subsequent fires.
Until now, the debate has revolved around what happened. Now there are new questions about when it happened.
In a new paper in the journal Science, Jacuelyn Gill and others suggest that megafauna were in decline well before the 12,900 date. Gill, a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin, looked for spores of the fungus Sporormiella, known to grow in the dung of large herbivores. Those spores start to disappear from sites in New York state and Indiana between 14,800 and 13,700 years ago, suggesting an early disappearance for the mastodon.
But wait. Another recent paper by Neal Woodman and others in Quaternary Research finds that a mastodon skeleton discovered in Indiana in 1976 (and now on display at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History) was dated incorrectly. A new analysis by the Smithsonian researcher finds that the mastodon was alive about 10,055 years ago.
Granted, one mastodon doesn’t make an entire population. But it can’t have been the only one. This means that some of the megafauna survived for thousands of years after they were supposed to have disappeared at the onset of the Younger Dryas, and long after the early decline suggested by Gill.
The commentary accompanying the Gill paper suggests that both the climate change and the impact hypothesis ideas are dead. Instead, the suggestion is that overhunting by paleo-Indians, already established in North America before the Clovis people arrived, is responsible for the early decline.
These conclusions seem premature. What can be said, based on the Gill paper, is that at least some local populations of megafauna were in trouble before the Younger Dryas, for reasons that remain unclear. From the Woodman paper we can infer that some other populations survived well after. And we know already, that an awful lot happened in between — which may or may not have included a comet impact.
It’s ironic that this picture is so confusing when the extinction of the dinosaurs by a large asteroid 65 million years ago now seems quite clear. But this is partly an effect of distance. If we could have visited Earth 12,900 thousand years after the dinosaurs went extinct it’s likely we would have found all kinds of interesting evidence, no longer available, that would have complicated the picture. The loss of the megafauna is both intriguing and hard to understand because it is so recent and there are so many more pieces of the puzzle to play with.
The only solution, as Woodman points out, is even more information. He suggests that mammoth and mastodon fossils in museums around the world should be looked again and redated if necessary to improve consistency in the data. There’s still more work to be done in sampling the environment too.
This debate is far from over. Like North America at the end of the ice age, it’s just getting warmed up.
Ivan Semeniuk is host of the podcast The Universe in Mind and a science journalist in residence at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto.