Climate change frames debate over the extinction of megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea).
ABSTRACT: Around 88 large vertebrate taxa disappeared from Sahul sometime during the Pleistocene, with the majority of losses (54 taxa) clearly taking place within the last 400,000 years. The largest was the 2.8-ton browsing Diprotodon optatum, whereas the ?100- to 130-kg marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, the world's most specialized mammalian carnivore, and Varanus priscus, the largest lizard known, were formidable predators. Explanations for these extinctions have centered on climatic change or human activities. Here, we review the evidence and arguments for both. Human involvement in the disappearance of some species remains possible but unproven. Mounting evidence points to the loss of most species before the peopling of Sahul (circa 50-45 ka) and a significant role for climate change in the disappearance of the continent's megafauna.
Project description:Seasonal two-way migration is an ecological phenomenon observed in a wide range of large-bodied placental mammals, but is conspicuously absent in all modern marsupials. Most extant marsupials are typically smaller in body size in comparison to their migratory placental cousins, possibly limiting their potential to undertake long-distance seasonal migrations. But what about earlier, now-extinct giant marsupial megafauna? Here we present new geochemical analyses which show that the largest of the extinct marsupial herbivores, the enormous wombat-like Diprotodon optatum, undertook seasonal, two-way latitudinal migration in eastern Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea). Our data infer that this giant marsupial had the potential to perform round-trip journeys of as much as 200 km annually, which is reminiscent of modern East African mammal migrations. These findings provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence for repetitive seasonal migration in any metatherian (including marsupials), living or extinct, and point to an ecological phenomenon absent from the continent since the Late Pleistocene.
Project description:The extinct marsupial 'lion' Thylacoleo carnifex was Australia's largest mammalian carnivore. Despite being the topic of more discussion than any other extinct Australian marsupial (excepting perhaps the Thylacine), basic aspects of its palaeobiology, including its locomotory repertoire, remain poorly understood. Recent discoveries allowed the first reconstruction of an entire skeleton including the first complete tail and hitherto-unrecognised clavicles. Here we describe these elements and re-assess the biomechanics of the postcranial skeleton via comparisons with a range of extant terrestrial, scansorial and arboreal Australian marsupials. Our analysis suggests that T. carnifex possessed: a relatively stiff tail comprising half of the vertebral column length; proximal caudal centra exhibiting a relatively high resistance to sagittal and lateral bending (RSB and RTB); relatively enlarged areas of origin for caudal flexors and extensors; a rigid lumbar spine; and a shoulder girdle braced by strong clavicles. The lever arms of major muscle/tendon systems controlling the axial and appendicular skeleton were identified and RSB and RTB calculated. The combination of these features compared most closely overall with those of the much smaller Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), a hunter/scavenger capable of climbing. Similar locomotor behaviour is proposed for Thylacoleo carnifex. Orientation of articular facets and RSB stresses also indicate that T. carnifex may have held its tail in a dorsally-flexed position.
Project description:New Guineans represent one of the oldest locally continuous populations outside Africa, harboring among the greatest linguistic and genetic diversity on the planet. Archeological and genetic evidence suggest that their ancestors reached Sahul (present day New Guinea and Australia) by at least 55,000 years ago (kya). However, little is known about this early settlement phase or subsequent dispersal and population structuring over the subsequent period of time. Here we report 379 complete Papuan mitochondrial genomes from across Papua New Guinea, which allow us to reconstruct the phylogenetic and phylogeographic history of northern Sahul. Our results support the arrival of two groups of settlers in Sahul within the same broad time window (50-65 kya), each carrying a different set of maternal lineages and settling Northern and Southern Sahul separately. Strong geographic structure in northern Sahul remains visible today, indicating limited dispersal over time despite major climatic, cultural, and historical changes. However, following a period of isolation lasting nearly 20 ky after initial settlement, environmental changes postdating the Last Glacial Maximum stimulated diversification of mtDNA lineages and greater interactions within and beyond Northern Sahul, to Southern Sahul, Wallacea and beyond. Later, in the Holocene, populations from New Guinea, in contrast to those of Australia, participated in early interactions with incoming Asian populations from Island Southeast Asia and continuing into Oceania.
Project description:The settlement of Sahul, the lost continent of Oceania, remains one of the most ancient and debated human migrations. Modern New Guineans inherited a unique genetic diversity tracing back 50,000 years, and yet there is currently no model reconstructing their past population dynamics. We generated 58 new whole genome sequences from Papua New Guinea, filling geographical gaps in previous sampling, specifically to address alternative scenarios of the initial migration to Sahul and the settlement of New Guinea. Here, we present the first genomic models for the settlement of northeast Sahul considering one or two migrations from Wallacea. Both models fit our dataset, reinforcing the idea that ancestral groups to New Guinean and Indigenous Australians split early, potentially during their migration in Wallacea where the northern route could have been favored. The earliest period of human presence in Sahul was an era of interactions and gene flow between related but already differentiated groups, from whom all modern New Guineans, Bismarck islanders and Indigenous Australians descend. The settlement of New Guinea was probably initiated from its southeast region, where the oldest archaeological sites have been found. This was followed by two migrations into the south and north lowlands that ultimately reached the west and east highlands. We also identify ancient gene flows between populations in New Guinea, Australia, East Indonesia and the Bismarck Archipelago, emphasizing the fact that the anthropological landscape during the early period of Sahul settlement was highly dynamic rather than the traditional view of extensive isolation.
Project description:Explanations for the Upper Pleistocene extinction of megafauna from Sahul (Australia and New Guinea) remain unresolved. Extinction hypotheses have advanced climate or human-driven scenarios, in spite of over three quarters of Sahul lacking reliable biogeographic or chronologic data. Here we present new megafauna from north-eastern Australia that suffered extinction sometime after 40,100 (±1700) years ago. Megafauna fossils preserved alongside leaves, seeds, pollen and insects, indicate a sclerophyllous forest with heathy understorey that was home to aquatic and terrestrial carnivorous reptiles and megaherbivores, including the world's largest kangaroo. Megafauna species diversity is greater compared to southern sites of similar age, which is contrary to expectations if extinctions followed proposed migration routes for people across Sahul. Our results do not support rapid or synchronous human-mediated continental-wide extinction, or the proposed timing of peak extinction events. Instead, megafauna extinctions coincide with regionally staggered spatio-temporal deterioration in hydroclimate coupled with sustained environmental change.
Project description:We provide the first predictions of bite force (BS) in a wide sample of living and fossil mammalian predators. To compare between taxa, we calculated an estimated bite force quotient (BFQ) as the residual of BS regressed on body mass. Estimated BS adjusted for body mass was higher for marsupials than placentals and the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) had the highest relative BS among extant taxa. The highest overall BS was in two extinct marsupial lions. BFQ in hyaenas were similar to those of related, non-osteophagous taxa challenging the common assumption that osteophagy necessitates extreme jaw muscle forces. High BFQ in living carnivores was associated with greater maximal prey size and hypercarnivory. For fossil taxa anatomically similar to living relatives, BFQ can be directly compared, and high values in the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) suggest that they took relatively large prey. Direct inference may not be appropriate where morphologies depart widely from biomechanical models evident in living predators and must be considered together with evidence from other morphological indicators. Relatively low BFQ values in two extinct carnivores with morphologies not represented among extant species, the sabrecat, Smilodon fatalis, and marsupial sabretooth, Thylacosmilus atrox, support arguments that their killing techniques also differed from extant species and are consistent with 'canine-shear bite' and 'stabbing' models, respectively. Extremely high BFQ in the marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, indicates that it filled a large-prey hunting niche.
Project description:Background The Sunda-Sahul Convergence Zone, defined here as the area comprising Australia, New Guinea, and Southeast Asia (Indonesia to Myanmar), straddles the Sunda and Sahul continental shelves and is one of the most biogeographically famous and important regions in the world. Floristically, it is thought to harbour a large amount of the world's diversity. Despite the importance of the area, a checklist of the flora has never before been published. Here we present the first working checklist of vascular plants for the Sunda-Sahul Convergence Zone. The list was compiled from 24 flora volumes, online databases and unpublished plot data. Taxonomic nomenclature was updated, and each species was coded into nested biogeographic regions. The list includes 60,415 species in 5,135 genera and 363 families of vascular plants. New information This is the first species-level checklist of the region and presents an updated census of the region's floristic biodiversity. The checklist confirms that species richness of the SSCZ is comparable to that of the Neotropics, and highlights areas in need of further documentation and taxonomic work. This checklist provides a novel dataset for studying floristic ecology and evolution in this biogeographically important region of very high global biodiversity.
Project description:The first peopling of Sahul (Australia, New Guinea and the Aru Islands joined at lower sea levels) by anatomically modern humans required multiple maritime crossings through Wallacea, with at least one approaching 100?km. Whether these crossings were accidental or intentional is unknown. Using coastal-viewshed analysis and ocean drift modelling combined with population projections, we show that the probability of randomly reaching Sahul by any route is <5% until ?40 adults are 'washed off' an island at least once every 20 years. We then demonstrate that choosing a time of departure and making minimal headway (0.5 knots) toward a destination greatly increases the likelihood of arrival. While drift modelling demonstrates the existence of 'bottleneck' crossings on all routes, arrival via New Guinea is more likely than via northwestern Australia. We conclude that anatomically modern humans had the capacity to plan and make open-sea voyages lasting several days by at least 50,000 years ago.
Project description:Anatomically modern humans (<i>Homo sapiens</i>, AMH) began spreading across Eurasia from Africa and adjacent Southwest Asia about 50,000-55,000 years ago (<i>ca</i> 50-55 ka). Some have argued that human genetic, fossil, and archaeological data indicate one or more prior dispersals, possibly as early as 120 ka. A recently reported age estimate of 65 ka for Madjedbebe, an archaeological site in northern Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea), if correct, offers what might be the strongest support yet presented for a pre-55-ka African AMH exodus. We review evidence for AMH arrival on an arc spanning South China through Sahul and then evaluate data from Madjedbebe. We find that an age estimate of >50 ka for this site is unlikely to be valid. While AMH may have moved far beyond Africa well before 50-55 ka, data from the region of interest offered in support of this idea are not compelling.
Project description:The region of the ancient Sahul continent (present day Australia and New Guinea, and surrounding islands) is home to extreme linguistic diversity. Even apart from the huge Austronesian language family, which spread into the area after the breakup of the Sahul continent in the Holocene, there are hundreds of languages from many apparently unrelated families. On each of the subcontinents, the generally accepted classification recognizes one large, widespread family and a number of unrelatable smaller families. If these language families are related to each other, it is at a depth which is inaccessible to standard linguistic methods. We have inferred the history of structural characteristics of these languages under an admixture model, using a Bayesian algorithm originally developed to discover populations on the basis of recombining genetic markers. This analysis identifies 10 ancestral language populations, some of which can be identified with clearly defined phylogenetic groups. The results also show traces of early dispersals, including hints at ancient connections between Australian languages and some Papuan groups (long hypothesized, never before demonstrated). Systematic language contact effects between members of big phylogenetic groups are also detected, which can in some cases be identified with a diffusional or substrate signal. Most interestingly, however, there remains striking evidence of a phylogenetic signal, with many languages showing negligible amounts of admixture.