Nogués-Bravo, D., Rodríguez, J., Hortal, J., Batra, P. & Araújo, M.B. (2008) Climate change, humans and the extinction of the woolly mammoth. PLoS Biology, 6, e79. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060079
What caused the woolly mammoth’s extinction? Climate warming in the Holocene might have driven the extinction of this cold-adapted species, yet the species had survived previous warming periods, suggesting that the more-plausible cause was human expansion. Testing these competing hypotheses has been hampered by the difficulty in generating quantitative estimates of the relationship between the mammoth’s contraction and the climatic and/or human-induced drivers of extinction. In this study, we combined paleo-climate simulations, climate envelope models (which describe the climate associated with the known distribution of a species—its envelope—and estimate that envelope’s position under different climate change scenarios), and a population model that includes an explicit treatment of woolly mammoth–human interactions to measure the extent to which climate changes, increased human pressures, or a combination of both factors might have been responsible. Results show a dramatic decline in suitable climate conditions for the mammoth between the Late Pleistocene and the Holocene, with hospitable areas in the mid-Holocene being restricted mainly to Arctic Siberia, where the latest records of woolly mammoths in continental Asia have been found. The population model results also support the view that the collapse of the climatically suitable area caused a significant drop in mammoth population size, making the animals more vulnerable to increasing hunting pressure from expanding human populations. The coincidence of the collapse of climatically suitable areas and the increase in anthropogenic impacts in the Holocene are most likely to have been the “coup de grâce,” which set the place and time for the extinction of the woolly mammoth.