What Caused Madagascar’s Megafauna Extinction?

Guest post by David Middleton

What rapidly wiped out Madagascar’s megafauna between 700 and 1000 AD?

Climate change? Meteors? Over-hunting? President Donald J. Trump? Nope. It appears that agriculture may have killed the beasts…

Last of the giants: What killed off Madagascar’s megafauna a thousand years ago?

March 29, 2019


Giant 10-foot-tall elephant birds, with eggs eight times larger than an ostrich’s. Sloth lemurs bigger than a panda, weighing in at 350 pounds. A puma-like predator called the giant fosa.

They sound like characters in a child’s fantasy book, but along with dozens of other species, they once really roamed the landscape of Madagascar. Then, after millions of years of evolution in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the populations crashed in just a couple of centuries.

Scientists know that over the past 40,000 years, most of Earth’s megafauna – that is, animals human-size or larger – have gone extinct. Woolly mammoths, sabre tooth tigers and countless others no longer roam the planet.

What’s remarkable about the megafaunal crash in Madagascar is that it occurred not tens of thousands of years ago but just over 1,000 years ago, between A.D. 700 and 1000. And while some small populations survived a while longer, the damage was done in a relatively short amount of time. Why?

Over the last three years, new investigations into climate and land use patterns, human genetic diversity on the island and the dating of hundreds of fossils have fundamentally changed scientists’ understanding of the human and natural history of Madagascar. As two paleoclimatologists and a paleontologist, we brought together this research with new evidence of megafaunal butchery. In doing so we’ve created a new theory of how, why and when these Malagasy megafauna went extinct.

[…]

If there was no obvious climate shift and humans lived alongside and sustainably hunted the megafauna for up to 9,000 years, what could have triggered the population crash?

The abrupt land use change might hold some clues.

[…]

Evidence for simultaneous increases in grassland, fires, and cows and other domesticated animals points to a sudden change in Malagasy lifestyle: the introduction of cattle husbandry and slash-and-burn agriculture known locally as Tavy. Here, forests are cut down to make space for rice paddies, and grassland burned to promote the growth of nutritious seedlings for cow fodder.

This move away from foraging and hunting toward farming meant the land could support more people. The result was a rapid rise in the size of the human population – and that’s what we conclude spelled disaster for the megafauna.

Here lies the contradiction of the situation: Hunting megafauna for survival became less important as people could rely on their agriculture and livestock. But cut marks on fossil bones indicate that hunting didn’t altogether stop just because people had other food sources. It turns out that the impact on the megafauna of larger human populations hunting just to supplement their diet was greater than the impact of smaller human populations relying more heavily on the native animals as a vital food source.

[…]

The Conversation

Aepyornis titan (the “elephant bird”) was one of Madagascar’s more noteworthy Late Quaternary megafauna. It looked like something out of the movie, Mysterious Island

“Reconstructed image of an elephant bird, in the Aepyornis family.” (Yale GSAS)

You would think that Aepyornis might have been hunted into extinction… With drumsticks bigger than a bundle of Louisville Sluggers, a bucket of the Colonel’s fried elephant bird would have easily fed a family of four… dozen. However, it appears that human predation was mostly limited to “egg-poaching”… I imagine it would have taken several hours to poach an egg 160 times the volume of a chicken egg.

Setting aside the idiotic comment about the current “mass extinctions,” Yale anthropology grad student Kristina Guild Douglass had an interesting discussion of the giant elephant bird in this Yale University article…

“As the world enters into a new wave of mass extinctions, which is starting to announce itself with the precarious status of species like the black rhino, it is very important to understand how human action is linked to ecology, evolution, and climate change,” says Kristina.

[…]

One focus of her dissertation project is the interaction between people and the now-extinct giant elephant bird, Aepyornis, the largest of which stood over 10 feet tall, weighed up to 800 pounds, and laid eggs 160 times the volume of a chicken egg. The National Geographic Society in Washington has an intact subfossilized egg that contains an embryonic skeleton of the unborn bird.

“When they died out is a central question of my research,” she says. “There may have been five or more species of these birds in Madagascar, and each species likely had a distinct extinction trajectory.” The last historical sighting of an Aepyornis was in the 17th century, and most of the radiocarbon-dated remains hover around the 12th century or earlier, but Kristina has found a specimen that may be much younger – in fact, if she can confirm the date, it would be the youngest elephant bird remains ever discovered.

“Why they died out is also a complex question, but the answer is somewhere in the combination of climate change, changes in vegetation patterns, and human predation,” she says. “From my excavations, however, human predation seems to be limited to egg-poaching. I have not found any evidence that people hunted adult birds, which was one of the major drivers of extinction for giant flightless birds elsewhere, like the moa in New Zealand.”

Yale GSAS

I wonder if there’s any evidence that Aepyornis might have been the predator rather than the prey?

The Thunderbird (AKA “Demon Duck of Doom”) “DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images” The Thought Co

Apparently not. Fortunately for Madagascar’s early human settlers, Aepyornis most likely subsisted on low-hanging fruit (literally)…

07 of 10

The Elephant Bird Was Slightly Shorter than the Thunder Bird

There’s little doubt that Aepyornis was the heaviest bird that ever lived, but it wasn’t necessarily the tallest–that honor goes to Dromornis, the “Thunder Bird” of Australia, some individuals of which measured nearly 12 feet tall. (Dromornis was much more slenderly built, however, only weighing about 500 pounds.) By the way, one species of Dromornis may yet wind up being assigned to the genus Bullockornis, otherwise known as the “Demon Duck of Doom.”

08 of 10

The Elephant Bird Probably Subsisted on Fruits

You might think a ratite as fierce and feathery as the Elephant Bird would spend its time preying on the smaller animals of Pleistocene Madagascar, notably its tree-dwelling lemurs. As far as paleontologists can tell, however, Aepyornis contented itself with picking off low-lying fruit, which grew in abundance in this tropical climate. (This conclusion is supported by studies of a smaller extant ratite, the cassowary of Australia and New Guinea, which is well-adapted to a fruit diet).

09 of 10
The Elephant Bird Was Doomed to Extinction by Human Settlers

[…]

10 of 10
It May Be Possible to “De-Extinct” the Elephant Bird

[…]

ThoughtCo. 10 Facts About the Elephant Bird

It’s amazing that humans seem to be responsible for every species extinction since humans evolved. It makes one wonder how species were ever able to go extinct without our help… Is it time for George Carlin? Warning: Lots of F-bombs…

Arcane American Pop Culture References

Louisville Slugger

Louisville Slugger baseball bat.

A bucket of the Colonel’s fried elephant bird chicken.

A bucket of Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken: It’s “finger lickin’ good.”

George Carlin

George Carlin, the greatest American philosopher since Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
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73 thoughts on “What Caused Madagascar’s Megafauna Extinction?

    • Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths and miracles as poetic fantasy. To teach superstition as truth is a terrible thing. Hypatia of Alexandria.

      • There is a lot of evidence that the flood was a real event but it did NOT happen 1000 years ago in Madagascar.

        Megafauna have been disappearing for 40ka but the last one must have been “our fault”. Hope she gets her PhD for this bunk, then she can be an “expert” for the media.

  1. What’s the mystery? Where people went, large animals died off. People killed and ate them, duh? The only restraint was numbers of people, once human populations increased (what this article called the spread of agriculture) then that was the end of the large delicious animals. How obvious is that?

    • Yep, it is an undeniable pattern happening at widely different times.
      When humans arrived in sufficient numbers the megafauna went extinct.

      • This is another argument for Africa being the mother continent of humans. Africa still HAS a megafauna, stressed though it might be. Those animals evolved alongside hominins, and learned what to do (and not do) about us. Everywhere else, we came as a terrible surprise.

        • Agriculture and massive human populations didn’t arrive in africa and thats why there is still Megafauna in Africa.

    • We didn’t always eat them… Sometimes we just crowded them out. In the case of cattle, we just moved them from the wild to the production line.

      • The very best way for any animal to survive in the era of human civilization is to be tasty!

      • So, if the eggs were valuable to humans, why didn’t Aepyornis become another farm animal, like chickens are today? Surely there was the knowledge that eating ALL the eggs would eventually mean NO EGGS.

        I’m guessing it wasn’t humans, but other predators that perhaps had fewer and fewer alternatives for food as humans turned to cultivating large areas of land, perhaps coupled with the unwieldy size of the “produce” that became less and less convenient relative to other food sources.

        If humans wanted the animal to survive for a food source, it would have been domesticated and survived.

        • Humans were probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Agriculture-related land-use changes took away their habitat. One of the uses for the Elephant Bird eggs was as a container for rum… It seems that the empty egg shells were one of the reasons for egg-poaching.

        • What “other predators”? The fossa? There isn’t (wasn’t) any other largish predator on Madagascar.

        • It doesn’t matter if 90% of the people wanted to preserve them, because the remaining 10% would simply poach them to extinction.

    • NZ, how many days in a row on 500 pounds “of the large delicious animals” diet.

      Without paying consumers for those incomplete Burgers.

  2. 5000 years megatsuanmi via Burkle crater, could killed a few off with 600’ waves

  3. The Moa became extinct in New Zealand before Europeans came to these shores .
    There are plenty of theories as to why this happened .
    The Maoris hunted the Moa when they arrived in New Zealand around 800 years ago and they hunted them until they became extinct .
    There are still Maori place names such as Te Rau Moa which translated means The Land of the Moa .
    Incidentally I started my schooling there in a one roomed school with between 8 to 14 pupils in the late 1940s.
    The stones from the Moa’s stomach could be found after burning off fern and scrub country in little heaps but most Moa bones are found in Tomo’s which are holes in limestone country down into the caves below .
    The Maoris had gardens but they were not on a large scale so farming did not affect the Moa.
    The Maoris used fire to flush out the giant birds as they frequented fern and tussocky areas that would take a good fire at the end of a dry summer .

    • And any place name with “Kai” in it basically meant “Food here” lol. Well, that’s what my Maori friend told me before migrating there in 1995.

    • When I was in NZ, I heard that the Maoris hunted them because they were dangerous. They were tall enough and strong enough to kill you by pecking you on the head. ( Especially if you tried to steal one of its eggs ).

  4. The 9 species of Moa went extinct in New Zealand even more recently: from 1300 – 1400 +/- 20 years. The current explanation is over-hunting by Maoris who arrived around 1280. Perhaps that needs to be reexamined.

    • The Maoris also hunted and ate the indigenous population but they seem to have now taken control of history and managed rewrite this genocide out of the record. Any archeological remains of the earlier inhabitants get suppressed and disappear in the night. The guilt ridden liberal white population seem complicit in this “correction” and of course it has been “debunked” on WonkyPedia.

    • “Perhaps that needs to be reexamined.”

      Not really. The very earliest maori sites have large number of bones of obviously slaughtered moas. Then none…

      And farming was of limited importance for the maori since most of the polynesian crops do not grow well or at all in New Zealand, particularly not on South Island.

  5. “What Caused Madagascar’s Megafauna Extinction?”

    Uh…CO1.0 ? You know, the first version of Carbon that was causing global destruction before we invented CO2.0 ?

    I hear AOC is working on a new CO3.0, but there is no delivery date as yet.

    • The stupider an idea is… the more likely it is that AOC, Beto & Co. will embrace it.

  6. “What rapidly wiped out Madagascar’s megafauna between 700 and 1000 AD?”

    SUVs. Obviously.

    • Come to think of it… Elephant Bird Buffalo Wings would actually be buffalo-sized… LOL!

  7. It’s pretty funny how these people work the words climate change into any paper they’d like to publish. It’s quite odd, this mass group think.

  8. Agriculture is based on the principle of conservation. You don’t eat all your cattle now, so you have plenty for next year. You don’t eat all your grain now, so you have seed for next year.
    The obvious inference is that agriculture could only have been “invented” if hunter-gatherers had already understood the principle of conservation.

    Further, if wild food is plentiful in the presence of a small human population, it is contradictory to claim that it was a scarcity of food that restricted the growth of human populations, pre-agriculture,,, or that the plentiful nature of food in the agricultural systems forced humans to put extra pressure on the wild resource.

    What seems more probable, is that wildlife and agriculture compete – that in order for agriculture to be successful, animals that eat crops and livestock must be destroyed. This is a common scenario around the world.

    The greater productivity of agriculture also means that wildlufe ceases to be a valued resource requiring conservation, and so may be wiped out without remorse. We see this in large areas of rural Africa today. Where wildlife does not bring an income, it is generally regarded as pests. Dangerous pests that may kill your family, your livestock, or destroy the crops that you depend on for your food.

    • Agreed, farmers don’t hunt to supplement their diet, they hunt protect their farms. Wild animals find the things we are farming just as tasty as we do, so for farming to be viable we need to stop wild animals raiding our farms. The best way to do this is to kill them.

      • The deer herd in Michigan sustains something like 350k unnatural deaths per year. That’s legal hunting–poaching is an unknown number–and car-deer accidents.
        In addition, there is the natural turnover. That means a heck of a big population and you don’t get that by eating spruce shoots.
        Farming is the deer version of the Old Country Buffet. They’re two hundred pound rats.
        In some cases, if you didn’t want to bother with a license, you can sit on your porch and shoot them over your hastas. Not to mention your apples, cherries, corn, wheat, tulips, carrots, etc.
        In other words, a farm is a gigantic bait pile.
        To the extent that the Madagascar megacritters thought farms were less work than the usual effort, they’d have been fat, dumb targets for whatever ordnance the locals cooked up. Less work all around.

    • Agriculture eliminates the hunter prey relationship, when a human population survival is not longer dependent on animal population, hunters can hunt an animal to extinction since their lively hold does not rely on the animals. Without agriculture a human population is dependent on the prey population, if the prey goes extinct so does the hunters, of course in the real world, both populations run togethers hunter and prey increase together and it generally not the hunters that regulate the prey, it the conditions of climate that does. Lastly most recent extinctions were not due to human hunting something to extinction, rater we interduce a invasive species that kill off the local population, rats, pigs and domestic animals diseases are common to that problem for animal extinction.

  9. “Demon Duck of Doom”? So that’s where Gene Hackman’s mispronunciation of “Duke Of Doom” in Unforgiven originated.

  10. A mysterious island with giant creatures? It sounds like a something Jules Verne would have written about.

  11. Interesting thing is that there were 5+ species, a big place, but maybe they were superbird versions of Darwin’s finches specialized for eating certain fruits. Big critters do go extinct a lot, or easier to find as fossils. Being big helps in some ways, but carries big burdens. Also the fossa is a big mongoose, wonder if they are really bad predators like fishers eating porcupines.

  12. From the quoted Thoughtco;

    “(This conclusion is supported by studies of a smaller extant ratite, the cassowary of Australia and New Guinea, which is well-adapted to a fruit diet).”

    Cassowaries will happily eat anything, with the proof being the ease of finding small marsupial bones in their droppings.

    Proof they also killed said marsupials? Maybe, maybe not, but they are definitely happy to eat them.

    • But they mostly eat fruit, as seen from their droppings. I once fed a wild cassowary bananas. He loved them.

      Many birds (e. g. tits and rails) will opportunistically take small animals/carrion. That a chicken does is not surprising at all, the wild form (junglefowl) largely subsists on small animals it finds by scratching in the leaf-mould in the jungle. The best way to locate jungle-fowl is by listening for the characteristic noise they make.

      • I stumbled and stepped on a 10-day-old farm chicken, squashing its gut out. It took only a few seconds for its siblings to pick it apart and consume it. It was still screaming when more than a half of it was gone.

        In a somewhat similar accident, an electrician on a broiler farm went missing one winter night. A frozen pile of bones was found in the yard when the morning shift came to work. He was an alcoholic and had been habitually found lying on the ground unconscious. That night, he picked the wrong place to get drunk.

      • This may be shocking to human vegetarians, but many animals assumed to be vegetarian are more omnivorous than you would think. I’ve seen studies of moose preferring willow branches with sawflies or caterpillars; elk eating ground nestling birds; 10% of prairie dog contents are insects; House Sparrows – among the closest to being vegetarians among birds – feed their young mostly on insects. Chickens will eat mice live and dead, and even fight over the carcasses, just like they eat any insect they can catch. Vegetarianism is a human concept and even ruminants will find extra protein, sodium, etc. wherever they can.

  13. Really the Megafauna started dieing off around 2 million years ago, about the start of the current Ice Age. Over time they simply died off for a variety of reasons, including humans, until now just the Elephant and rhino are left.

    Interestingly the trend through evolution is for creatures to get smaller, but nobody seems to know why.

    • The largest animal known to ever inhabit the planet is alive today.

      During hothouse periods the land is more productive. During icehouse periods the ocean is more productive.

      In general herbivorous tend to become larger to escape predation from large carnivorous. When placed in islands without large predators they experiment pressure to reduce their size. Carnivorous become larger to predate on larger prey. It is an arms race. We changed the rules by killing both large carnivorous and large herbivorous.

      Now the largest predators are also at sea, the killer whales.

      • sperm whales …

        and big squids probably don’t weigh as much as orcas, but they are “bigger”.

  14. People tend to forget that for most of human existence the rule as regards a significant number of important members of the megafauna has been ‘eat of be eaten.’ If you had told a prehistoric human that all the large large animals, including the predators, were in danger of extinction he no doubt would have given thanks to his gods.

  15. From the article

    Cut and chop marks on subfossil lemur bones reveal a shift in primary hunting targets from larger, now-extinct species prior to ∼900 CE, to smaller, still-extant species afterwards.

    This argument has been made many times. Hunters targeted the larger animals first for efficiency, and large animals are a lot more susceptible to extinction due to their smaller numbers. A predator usually cannot extinct its main prey, but in the case of humans they could rely on other food and continue hunting the megafauna all the way to extinction.

    Humans total mass is larger by several orders of magnitude than that of any other mammal. We appropriate the land and the primary productivity, and therefore displace animals and plants from large parts of the planet. That we are and have been an important cause of extinction is indisputable.

    Climate change has also been a factor. The Pleistocene climatic madhouse has put a lot of stress on many species particularly from mid-high latitudes, driving a lot of them to extinction. It also caused our evolution from a tropical species affected by the expansion and retraction of forests. Plio-Pleistocene forests were spitting hominin species to the open spaces all the time. I think paleoanthropologists have little clue which ones were our ancestors.

    • Yep. The glacial-interglacial cycles and glacial stadial-interstadial cycles would have been challenging. Toss in the Late Pleistocene advance of humans and hunting dogs and it was too much for most megafauna to adapt to.

    • The use of fire seems to overlap the 2myr ice-ages epoch. It is the reason for the population density. Simple “primates” never exceeded 10 million in number. We are the species that uses fire – I suppose some dna paleo “experts” are still looking for the fire gene – they are indeed clue-less.
      Meanwhile see the advanced modular javelins from -25kyr found near Okhotsk – the cold was no real hindrance. Climate change was no problem for them then.
      Our herds of domesticated animals exceed by far any previous wild herd numbers.

      The attempt to remove any fire based economy to drive us back to primate population levels is shown for what it is – we are not listening to Darwin, sorry.

  16. land use changes led to bigger human populations led to humans killing the mega fauna for food and resources

    Their theory is horse ****

  17. I will never forget te Goodies episode where they find and hatch a Dodo egg.,

    To cut a long story short after an episode of insanity featuring an entirely obnoxious animal it vanishes.

    “I’ve found out why the dodo became extinct”

    ¨Oh ? Why?”

    “It’s bloody delicious”

  18. Has anybody seen Gavin Menzies book 1421? Page 119.
    The Piri Reis Map depicts megafauna and especially the Mylodon (giant sloth) of Chile. I’m curious if that Map or another depicts Madagascar megafauna -was that sloth lemur a marsupial? The Patagonians grazed Mylodons from fenced caves, a kind of domestication.
    The 1421 Zheng He expedition brought various unusual animals back to China, including quilins (giraffes) and apparently two Mylodons, to great acclaim.
    Madagascar was surely a stop on the way of that expedition.

  19. I see this paper as corruption of science by political correctness. Everybody knows that Homo Sapiens hunted large animals to extinction, and it was nothing to do with Climate Change, Capitalism, White Colonialism and Slavery. But here the authors saw the possibility of implicating another one of the woke green bete noires: farming.

    Since the extinctions and growth of farming happened at the same time its impossible to decide cause and effect. The simplest hypothesis has to be that hunting caused a shortage of the animals, which then forced the people to become farmers.

  20. Magical Thinking and Buck Passing are such great fun.

    Makes you feel all ‘clever’ and ‘superior’ and ‘intelligent’

    Everywhere that ‘Man’ has settles and st up a ‘civilisation’, he has trashed it completely.
    Beyond the point where even Carbon Oxide Fertilation can recover what was previously there.
    Australia. Sahara, Gobi. Fertile Crescent inc The Garden Of Eden. Mediterranean Coast inc Syria & Lebanon

    The reason is very very simple – we invented Money
    (or a system of tokens and or bartering)

    Where money goes wrong is that when A Resource becomes scarce.
    For whatever reason -= over hunting maybe, but otherwise weather, climate, El Nino, disease epidemic whatever whatever whatever.

    Because Money means that the scarce resource goes up in price – it actually becomes more valuable and sought after.

    For EVERY other critter on the Planet, when something becomes scarce its value goes down.
    Because it takes more effort/time to find whatever the resource was/is and there comes a point where it is Simply Not Worth It.
    The resource seeker/hunter will go away and look for a replacement and the original resource will, in some way, recover.
    That may be a population grows back (as per Polar Bears and hunting) or as in soil fertility = the the practice of fallowing.
    Now no longer hardly practised – the pursuit of money renders the process ‘unprofitable’
    Lets all send Big Hugs and Kisses to the European Union Common Agricultural Policy and everything it has evolved into. ‘Agricultural Support is exactly NOT what they offer. If you (the farmer) don’t do what they tell you to do, You Are Bankrupt
    (The endless ongoing mess that is DEFRA and the UK Rural Payment Agency makes Brexit look like the Gettysburg Address)

    Nearly 45 years ago, I was taught ‘Geography’ at school.
    An exercise my class was given was to look at Annual Weather records from various places around the World and assess what sort of climate, landscape and fauna might exist there.
    Just roughly, only a handful of categories…. e,g. rainforest, desert, temperate grassland, high latitude forest etc.

    Do that exercise for anywhere west of Kansas City – desert.
    And that epic patch of dirt is managed by the folks who endlessly assert how rich and clever they are.

    sorry. your mileage does vary
    No matter, as long as the stick insects are a pretty colour.

    I always wondered, who were The Ferengi modelled on?
    (super) Computer: Make It So – tell me what I want to hear.

    • missed a bit in my Euro-Rant
      The point being made was the Europe, despite all the ‘support’ its farmers get, still requires to import 50% of all the tasteless, carcinogenic and nutrient free mush its hapless citizens are told/forced into eating.

      Parallel with Rome of course, importing 3 shiploads of wheat daily from somewhere in West Africa and lets not forget Hadrian (an epic sexual dysfunctional) building a wall.

      At least Hadrian managed to ‘get things done’
      By comparison: In the time (7 weeks) it has taken Modern Technology to clear a lump of fat from a semi-blocked drainpipe (Sidmouth), Hadrian managed to build a mile of his wall across Northern England, employing men wearing sandals & skirts using only hand-tools.
      With a huge ditch on one side, a mini-mountain of dirt on the other across some very remote countryside – he had to build roads & infrastructure first.

      Technology will save us?
      RU really sure – or is that more Magical Thinking?

  21. The population density of Madagascar was probably around 2 people per square mile in 1200, if that. However, it was the beginning of when humans could move around the world relatively fast with ships. Trade and intermingling of people and the things they traded (mostly other people) not only consisted of the transfer of new items around East Africa and Asia, but also of diseases and other animals like rats and pigs. I usually suspect most human caused extinctions were by proxy, not direct hunting or land use change.

  22. Boy – what I wouldn’t give for one of those drumsticks.

    I may have to swing by the Colonel’s on the way home.

  23. Oh, people arrived in Madascar 10,500 years ago so can’t be directly implicated in the extinction of mega-fauna
    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/09/new-find-clears-madagascar-s-first-settlers-wiping-out-world-s-largest-bird

    Oh no they didn’t and yes they [we] can
    https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204368

    Once the easy food was gone people had to move into an ecologicial balance with their environment or they would be “gone” as well. That’s the “wisdom of the elders”…err, we’ve almost eaten everything. What do we need to do to survive ? Sometimes they didn’t.

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