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Catastrophes and Lesser CalamitiesThe causes of mass extinctions$
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Tony Hallam

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780198524977

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198524977.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 24 October 2021

The influence of humans

The influence of humans

(p.184) 11 The influence of humans
Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities

Tony Hallam

Oxford University Press

We saw in Chapters 5 and 7 that the Quaternary was a time of low extinction rates despite a succession of strong environmental changes induced ultimately by climate. This began to change from a few tens of thousands of years ago with the arrival on our planet of Homo sapiens sapiens, which can be translated from the Latin as the rather smug ‘ultrawise Man’. It is widely accepted today that the Earth is undergoing a loss of species on a scale that would certainly rank in geological terms as a catastrophe, and has indeed, been dubbed ‘the sixth mass extinction’. Although the disturbance to the biosphere being created in modern times is more or less entirely attributable to human activity, we must use the best information available from historical, archaeological, and geological records to attempt to determine just when it began. Towards the end of the last ice age, known in Europe as the Würm and in North America as the Wisconsin, the continents were much richer in large mammals than today: for example, there were mammoths, mastodonts, and giant ground sloths in the Americas; woolly mammoths, elephants, rhinos, giant deer, bison, and hippos in northern Eurasia; and giant marsupials in Australia. Outside Africa most genera of large mammals, defined as exceeding 44 kilograms adult weight, disappeared within the past 100,000 years, an increasing number becoming extinct towards the end of that period. This indicates that there was a significant extinction event near the end of the Pleistocene. This event was not simultaneous across the world, however: it took place later in the Americas than Australia, and Africa and Asia have suffered fewer extinctions than other continents. There are three reasons for citing humans as the main reason for the late Pleistocene extinctions. First, the extinctions follow the appearance of humans in various parts of the world. Very few of the megafaunal extinctions that took place in the late Pleistocene can definitely be shown to pre-date the arrival of humans. There has, on the other hand, been a sequence of extinctions following human dispersal, culminating most recently on oceanic islands. Second, it was generally only large mammals that became extinct.

Keywords:   Ammonites, Bivalves, Carboniferous, Eocene, Extinction periodicity, Gondwana, Jurassic, Lilliput effect, Methane, Ordovician

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