Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz Previously Published Works bannerUC Santa Cruz

Climate-driven ecological stability as a globally shared cause of Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions: the Plaids and Stripes Hypothesis.

Published Web Location

Controversy persists about why so many large-bodied mammal species went extinct around the end of the last ice age. Resolving this is important for understanding extinction processes in general, for assessing the ecological roles of humans, and for conserving remaining megafaunal species, many of which are endangered today. Here we explore an integrative hypothesis that asserts that an underlying cause of Late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions was a fundamental shift in the spatio-temporal fabric of ecosystems worldwide. This shift was triggered by the loss of the millennial-scale climate fluctuations that were characteristic of the ice age but ceased approximately 11700 years ago on most continents. Under ice-age conditions, which prevailed for much of the preceding 2.6 Ma, these radical and rapid climate changes prevented many ecosystems from fully equilibrating with their contemporary climates. Instead of today's 'striped' world in which species' ranges have equilibrated with gradients of temperature, moisture, and seasonality, the ice-age world was a disequilibrial 'plaid' in which species' ranges shifted rapidly and repeatedly over time and space, rarely catching up with contemporary climate. In the transient ecosystems that resulted, certain physiological, anatomical, and ecological attributes shared by megafaunal species pre-adapted them for success. These traits included greater metabolic and locomotory efficiency, increased resistance to starvation, longer life spans, greater sensory ranges, and the ability to be nomadic or migratory. When the plaid world of the ice age ended, many of the advantages of being large were either lost or became disadvantages. For instance in a striped world, the low population densities and slow reproductive rates associated with large body size reduced the resiliency of megafaunal species to population bottlenecks. As the ice age ended, the downsides of being large in striped environments lowered the extinction thresholds of megafauna worldwide, which then increased the vulnerability of individual species to a variety of proximate threats they had previously tolerated, such as human predation, competition with other species, and habitat loss. For many megafaunal species, the plaid-to-stripes transition may have been near the base of a hierarchy of extinction causes whose relative importances varied geographically, temporally, and taxonomically.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View