“Size-selective extinction is a hallmark of human activity,” Smith says. In other words, when we’re around, big animals die.
“It doesn’t take a lot to make a species go extinct,” says Advait Jukar from George Mason University. “Humans didn’t need to go out and kill every last individual; all you need is a stressed population and just enough hunting pressure to keep the fertility rate [below replacement levels]. Eventually, the population will collapse.”
The distribution of body size is generally related to the size of a land mass. Africa is smaller than Eurasia but bigger than the Americas, so you’d expect its animals to weigh in somewhere in the middle. But by the time hominins left Africa, the average mammals there were about 50 percent smaller than the average ones in either Eurasia or the Americas. For that reason, Smith thinks these size-specific collapses started well before the rise of Homo sapiens, and probably dates back to the origins of Homo erectus, roughly 1.8 million years ago. “That was the species that marked the shift from hominins that depend heavily on plants to ones that depend more on meat,” says Smith. “Being a good predator is a general feature of our genus.”
When hominins like Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans spread through Europe and Asia, the average mass of mammals there halved. When Homo sapiens later entered Australia, the mammals there became 10 times smaller on average. And when they finally entered the Americas, with effective long-range weapons in hand, they downsized the mammals there to an even steeper degree. By around 15,000 years ago, the average mass of North America’s mammals had fallen from 216 pounds to just 17.
This is not a general feature of mammal evolution. Smith’s colleague, Kathleen Lyons from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been collecting data on mammalian body size over the last 65 million years. Her data show that the biggest beasts only became disproportionately vulnerable to extinction in the last few million. “People make this assumption that large animals are more at risk,” says Smith. “But large animals also have larger geographic ranges, which buffers them against extinction. For most animals across most time, being large was a good thing.”
Even during huge changes in climate, including several ice ages and warm spells, large mammals weren’t especially vulnerable. To her, that should settle the long-running and often acrimonious debate about whether humans were actually responsible for the loss of the megafauna. “When it got warmer or colder, it didn’t select for bigger or smaller mammals,” says Smith. “It’s only when humans got involved that being large enhanced your extinction risk.”
But “it’s not a slam dunk that humans are responsible for the entire [megafaunal] extinction,” says Jessica Theodor from the University of Calgary. As other studies have shown, it can be hard to parse out the effects of human hunting, climate change, and the big changes that ecosystems undergo when big mammals start to disappear. All of these things often occurred simultaneously, and compounded each other. Still, as Kaitlin Maguire from the Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History puts it, “while it’s thought that the megafaunal extinctions were a result of a one-two punch from shifting climate and human influences, this work demonstrates that the human punch was strong.”