“Waves of Extinction” – Prehistoric Poo Tells the Story of Megafauna Extinction in Colombian Andes

Frailejones in Monquentiva

Frailejones (Espeletia sp.) in Monquentiva, a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) common in the Colombian páramo. Credit: F. Pym 2022

Fungal spores discovered in dung have unveiled that megafauna experienced two distinct extinction “waves” in the Colombian Andes. Coprophilous fungi spores, which are integral to the life cycle of large animals weighing over 45 kg, pass through the digestive systems of these creatures. Consequently, the presence of such spores in sediment samples indicates that these sizable animals once inhabited specific locations and time periods.

Researchers led by the University of Exeter determined that the local extinction of large animals at Pantano de Monquentiva occurred approximately 23,000 years ago and again around 11,000 years ago, significantly affecting ecosystems. The study relied on samples taken from a peat bog in Pantano de Monquentiva, situated about 60 km from Bogota in the eastern cordillera. Notably, this research was the first of its kind to be carried out in Colombia.

With biodiversity now in crisis, the findings highlight how the disappearance of large animals could once again transform ecosystems that sustain wildlife and humans.

Collecting Sediment Samples at Monquentiva

Co-authors Dr Felipe Franco-Gaviria and Ismael G. Espinoza collecting sediment samples at Monquentiva. Credit: J. Oughton 2019

“We know that large animals such as elephants play a vital role in regulating ecosystems, for example by eating and trampling vegetation,” said Dr Dunia H. Urrego, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute. “By analyzing samples of fungal spores, as well as pollen and charcoal, we were able to track the extinction of large animals, and the consequences of this extinction for plant abundance and fire activity. We found the Monquentiva ecosystem changed dramatically when large animals disappeared, with different plant species thriving and wildfires increasing.”

Analysis of the fungal spores does not show which large animals were present, but species known to roam Colombia in this period include the giant armadillo and the six-meter-tall giant ground sloth.

The findings show that plentiful megafauna existed in the area for thousands of years, then disappeared entirely about 23,000 years ago.

About 5,000 years later, megafauna began to live in the area again – likely at lower numbers – before another wave of extinction about 11,000 years ago reduced them almost to zero.

The cause of these local extinctions is unknown, but climate changes and hunting by humans are two possibilities. Researchers have even suggested that a meteorite strike was the cause.

“After the megafauna vanished, plant species at Monquentiva transitioned, with more woody and palatable plants (those favored by grazing animals), and the loss of plants that depend on seed dispersal by animals,” said first author Felix Pym, a Masters by Research in Physical Geography student at the University of Exeter. “Wildfires became more common after the megafauna extinctions – presumably because flammable plants were no longer being eaten or trampled upon. Overall, our findings show that this habitat was highly sensitive to the decline of its megafaunal populations.”

The paper concludes that, given the current biodiversity crisis, conservation efforts must account for the effects of local herbivore declines on the dispersal of certain plant species, on fire activity, and the potential loss of ecosystem services (the value humans gain from nature).

Reference: “The timing and ecological consequences of Pleistocene megafaunal decline in the eastern Andes of Colombia” by Felix C. Pym, Felipe Franco-Gaviria, Ismael G. Espinoza and Dunia H. Urrego, 26 April 2023, Quaternary Research.
DOI: 10.1017/qua.2022.66

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