The Pleistocene Extinction

OpenStax Biology 2e

The Pleistocene Extinction is one of the lesser extinctions, and a recent one. It is well known that the North American, and to some degree Eurasian, megafauna—large vertebrate animals—disappeared toward the end of the last glaciation period. The extinction appears to have happened in a relatively restricted time period of 10,000–12,000 years ago. In North America, the losses were quite dramatic and included the woolly mammoths (with an extant population existing until about 4,000 years ago in isolation on Wrangel Island, Canada), mastodon, giant beavers, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and the North American camel, just to name a few. In the early 1900s, scientists first suggested the possibility that over-hunting caused the rapid extinction of these large animals. Research into this hypothesis continues today.

In general, the timing of the Pleistocene extinctions correlated with the arrival of paleo-humans, perhaps as long as 40,000 years ago, and not with climate-change events, which is the main competing hypothesis for these extinctions. The extinctions began in Australia about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, just after the arrival of humans in the area: a marsupial lion, a giant one-ton wombat, and several giant kangaroo species disappeared. In North America, the extinctions of almost all of the large mammals occurred 10,000–12,000 years ago. All that are left are the smaller mammals such as bears, elk, moose, and cougars. Finally, on many remote oceanic islands, the extinctions of many species occurred coincidentally with human arrivals. Not all of the islands had large animals, but when there were large animals, they were often forced into extinction. Madagascar was colonized about 2,000 years ago and the large mammals that lived there became extinct. Eurasia and Africa do not show this pattern, but they also did not experience a recent arrival of hunter-gatherer humans. Rather, humans arrived in Eurasia hundreds of thousands of years ago. This topic remains an area of active research and hypothesizing. It seems clear that even if climate played a role, in most cases human hunting precipitated the extinctions.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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