ECOS 39(5): Book review: END OF THE MEGAFAUNA

ECOS 39(5)


The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals

Ross D. E. MacPhee

W W Norton & Company


241 pages

Hardback £25

ISBN: 978-0-393-24929-3

Reviewed by Darren Naish @TetZoo

Mysteries of the Pleistocene megafauna

Those interested in the fossil record of the Pleistocene (that period of time extending from around 1.8 million years ago to about 11,000 years ago) will know that it ended with a wave of global extinctions. The following Holocene epoch – the one we’re still in today – has also been beset by megafaunal extinctions, most notably those on islands like Madagascar, New Zealand and Cuba.

In this highly readable book, Pleistocene expert and palaeomammalogist Ross McPhee reviews the discussion that has occurred (and continues to occur) over the cause of end-Pleistocene and Holocene extinctions. MacPhee is perhaps best known among palaeontologists for once promoting the idea that end-Pleistocene extinctions were caused by a terrifying hyperdisease that was able to cross species boundaries. This has never been a popular idea and has even been derided. To address the elephant in the room: while MacPhee does revisit the idea in one of the final sections of the book (and states therein that genomic evidence for the sorts of pathogens that could cause such events might one day be found), he is otherwise sceptical of the proposal now and concludes that it does not work as an explanation for extinctions in general. With that out of the way, what does this book do?

The great question the book sets out to examine is whether it was human hunting that killed off the bulk of the megafauna. As MacPhee explains, a series of influential articles and books published by Paul S. Martin from the 1960s onwards proposed that modern humans (as in, Homo sapiens specifically), spreading around the world and encountering animals that had no experience with human predation, were responsible for what’s known as overkill, and that it was this, predominantly, that caused the extinctions. Was Martin right, MacPhee asks. This book is predominantly a discussion of objections and responses to the overkill idea, the climate change hypothesis being the primary competitor.

MacPhee emphasises the way the case for the overkill scenario has been constructed, takes time to discuss the work of those who disagree with the idea, and points to the deficiency of data that often exists. Early sections in the book discuss the history and global spread of hominins and historical views on megafaunal extinction. The book ends with a discussion of Holocene extinctions and how extinctions may be complex events where different factors collide and interact. What does he conclude? This is actually difficult to determine, since his main conclusion appears to be ‘it’s complicated’, the nuances of extinction playing out differently in different parts of the world. My main take-home was that the fingerprints of humans are evident in many of the places where extinction occurred.

Finally, this book is more than a discussion of patterns and processes relevant to Pleistocene and Holocene extinction. It is also a pictorial review of Pleistocene megafaunal diversity packed with wonderful art by the impressive Peter Schouten. Even for a hypothetical buyer with little to no interest in the text, this book is definitely worth obtaining for its illustrations alone. The vast majority are novel, variously featuring individual animals as portraits, or landscape scenes where we see several species sharing the same environment.

A great many of the illustrations are novel, and depict animals not illustrated that often by anyone. They include the bibymalagasy Plesiorycteropus, the giant sloth lemur Megaladapis, the giant short-faced bear Pararctotherium, assorted extinct African and American equids, the giant Cuban owl Ornimegalonyx, and many more. I really like the fact that some of Schouten’s scenes mix extinct megafauna with extant species: after all, virtually all modern animals lived alongside extinct Pleistocene animals and often interacted with them. Megaloceros is posing next to a modern pheasant, a bird-of-paradise perches close to the surreal diprotodont Hulitherium, a dwarf elephant stands next to a fallow deer, and so on. There are one or two things that I would prefer to see depicted differently. It is unlikely that the teeth of Varanus priscus (the giant Australian monitor lizard formerly known as Megalania) would have been as prominent as Schouten shows them, and the sabretooth on the book’s cover looks to have odd proportions.

The book ends with a glossary, notes and bibliography. I recommend this work for anyone interested in Pleistocene wildlife, extinction or the life of the past in general, and especially to those who want to see artistic depictions of Pleistocene wildlife and environments.

ECOS 39(5): Contents

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase

Ploughing a New Furrow by Malcom Smith

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell

End of the Megafauna by Ross D. E. MacPhee

A Shadow Above by Joe Shute

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