Research explores drivers responsible for megafaunal extinction in Madagascar

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Over the past thousand years, the endemic mega fauna of Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands has been completely destroyed. An international research team analyzed the probable causes of this extinction by compiling an 8000 year old record of the island’s former climate.

The results of the study showed that although the ecosystem was resistant to the earlier climate stress, it crumbled with increasing human activity.

Christoph Spötl from the Innsbruck Quaternary Research Group was one of the members of the international research team. The results have now been published in the journal Science Advances.

Almost the entire Madagascan megafauna – including the well-known dodo bird, giant tortoises, the 3 m high and about half a ton heavy elephant bird and the gorilla-sized lemurs – disappeared 1500 to 500 years ago.

Did man overhunt these animals to extinction? Or did they disappear due to climate change? There are various hypotheses, but the real reason for the collapse of the megafauna remains a mystery and is the subject of intense debate.

The Mascarene Islands east of Madagascar are of unique interest as they are the last human colonized islands on the planet. Interestingly, the megafauna of the islands collapsed within only 200 years of human colonization.

In a recent study published in the journal Science Advances, an international team of researchers discovered that there may have been a “double devastation” caused by increased human activity along with a particularly acute period of drought throughout the region that may have led to the extinction of the megafauna.

The team rejects climate change as the only reason and instead suggests that the effects of human colonization contributed significantly to the collapse of the megafauna. Hanying Li, a post-doctoral researcher at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China and first author of this study, has compiled a detailed history of regional climate change.

The main source of the new paleoclimate records comes from the small Mascarene island of Rodrigues in the southwestern Indian Ocean, about 1600 km east of Madagascar.

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