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Britain’s lost megafauna and the extinction factor

Megafauna

About 50,000 years ago, Britain had great forests and populations of megafauna that most people would find it hard to believe inhabited this country, says Professor Keith Somerville, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. They included the cave hyena, sabre-toothed cats, the cave lion, the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and Irish elk or giant deer – huge animals that were living alongside early humans. Excavations in and around Trafalgar Square have unearthed fossils of cave lions and hippos. 

During the phases of the ice age (known as glacials), huge ice sheets covered Scotland, Ireland, Wales and northern England. Between the ice ages, there were periods of warming (interglacials) when the ice sheets retreated and were replaced by woodland, but not densely packed woods. Browsing and grazing by the megafaunal herbivores kept some areas open and prevented impenetrable forests dominating. The dung from these huge vegetarians (who were preyed on by hyenas, sabre-tooths, lions, and by early humans) kept the soils fertile and ensured enough plant matter to support their enormous appetites.

The early people who reached Britain from Europe around 400,000 years ago, having made a long and widely dispersing migration from Africa, would have faced beasts that were even more fearsome. One megafauna example is the giant short-faced hyena, Pachycrocuta brevirostris, which also preyed on humans and was the size of a lioness.

Ross Barnett superbly draws many of these images and relationships – herbivores and hunters, humans as hunted and hunters – in his new book, The Missing Lynx. The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals. It is a fascinating publication by a specialist in analysing and interpreting ancient DNA. Packed full of scientific data and detail of fossil discoveries and what DNA, in particular, shows they mean about our past wildlife, it is written with great humour, even cunningly weaving in snatches from literature and film, including an amusing snippet about brevity from the Cohn Brothers’ comic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski.

The book’s prologue starts with a great quote from the Swiss biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, that ‘The crust of our earth is a great cemetery, where the rocks are tombstones on which the buried dead have written their own epitaph’. As we contemplate a crumbling world that epitaph of the past inhabitants is ever more important in understanding how future extinctions, our own included, may be averted.

I was drawn to Barnett’s depiction of our extinct megafauna because he gave me advice about ancient sabre-tooths and early lions for my book, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, and his interest in early hyenas has helped my attempts to piece together the jigsaw of fossil and DNA evidence to build up a picture of human-hyena relations for my next book on the conflictual and myth-dominated history of hyenas and humans since the Pleistocene. Barnett’s book and my research have shown that species became extinct for a number of complex reasons and factors that vary from place to place, but always includes humans – the one factor that can most easily be changed.

There has long been an academic battle over whether the rise of Homo sapiens with bigger brains, improved weapons technology and cooperative hunting techniques, were chiefly responsible for the loss of the megafauna so clearly described in Barnett’s book; not just from Britain but particularly from the Americas and Australasia. There is a theory, called overkill, which states that early modern humans arriving in the Americas, for example, engaged in largescale hunting that wiped out 35 genera of large mammals. Some palaeontologists and other scientists have argued that the relatively small numbers of humans could not have wiped out these creatures without other factors being involved. Those factors being climate change and the associated changes in vegetation and food. A sensible balancing of the approaches suggests that at a time of climate change and stress, through loss of food plants, humans arrived in the Americas with relatively advanced projectile weapons and killed megafauna when it was most vulnerable leading to extinction on a large scale.

But whatever the balance of extinction factors, the difference between climate and human causes, ‘If it’s a combination of climate and humans then it’s clear where the fault lies,’ as Barnett notes (Missing Lynx, p, 34). ‘Only one of these causes has agency, foresight thought.’ Not just a good guide to human blame for past extinctions but a warning that we have foresight and should use it in the future.

[Note: this article deals with only a small portion of the issues covered by Ross Barnet’s book – The Missing Lynx. It has fascinating chapters on why, when looking at reintroductions to Britain of mammals now extinct here, there should be a full understanding of past natural history.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent where he is a member of its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and is a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. His latest publications are Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence (published this month) and Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa. He is now working on a book on human-hyena conflict and the making of the monstrous myths about hyenas.

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