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American mastodon extirpation in the Arctic and Subarctic predates human colonization and terminal Pleistocene climate change


Existing radiocarbon ((14)C) dates on American mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossils from eastern Beringia (Alaska and Yukon) have been interpreted as evidence they inhabited the Arctic and Subarctic during Pleistocene full-glacial times (∼ 18,000 (14)C years B.P.). However, this chronology is inconsistent with inferred habitat preferences of mastodons and correlative paleoecological evidence. To establish a last appearance date (LAD) for M. americanum regionally, we obtained 53 new (14)C dates on 36 fossils, including specimens with previously published dates. Using collagen ultrafiltration and single amino acid (hydroxyproline) methods, these specimens consistently date to beyond or near the ∼ 50,000 y B.P. limit of (14)C dating. Some erroneously "young" (14)C dates are due to contamination by exogenous carbon from natural sources and conservation treatments used in museums. We suggest mastodons inhabited the high latitudes only during warm intervals, particularly the Last Interglacial [Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5] when boreal forests existed regionally. Our (14)C dataset suggests that mastodons were extirpated from eastern Beringia during the MIS 4 glacial interval (∼ 75,000 y ago), following the ecological shift from boreal forest to steppe tundra. Mastodons thereafter became restricted to areas south of the continental ice sheets, where they suffered complete extinction ∼ 10,000 (14)C years B.P. Mastodons were already absent from eastern Beringia several tens of millennia before the first humans crossed the Bering Isthmus or the onset of climate changes during the terminal Pleistocene. Local extirpations of mastodons and other megafaunal populations in eastern Beringia were asynchrononous and independent of their final extinction south of the continental ice sheets.

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