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Late Quaternary Extinctions: State of the Debate

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Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics

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      Abstract

      Between fifty and ten thousand years ago, most large mammals became extinct everywhere except Africa. Slow-breeding animals also were hard hit, regardless of size. This unusual extinction of large and slow-breeding animals provides some of the strongest support for a human contribution to their extinction and is consistent with various human hunting models, but it is difficult to explain by models relying solely on environmental change. It is an oversimplification, however, to say that a wave of hunting-induced extinctions swept continents immediately after first human contact. Results from recent studies suggest that humans precipitated extinction in many parts of the globe through combined direct (hunting) and perhaps indirect (competition, habitat alteration) impacts, but that the timing and geography of extinction might have been different and the worldwide magnitude less, had not climatic change coincided with human impacts in many places.

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      Ecological responses to recent climate change.

      There is now ample evidence of the ecological impacts of recent climate change, from polar terrestrial to tropical marine environments. The responses of both flora and fauna span an array of ecosystems and organizational hierarchies, from the species to the community levels. Despite continued uncertainty as to community and ecosystem trajectories under global change, our review exposes a coherent pattern of ecological change across systems. Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible.
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        Extinction risk from climate change.

        Climate change over the past approximately 30 years has produced numerous shifts in the distributions and abundances of species and has been implicated in one species-level extinction. Using projections of species' distributions for future climate scenarios, we assess extinction risks for sample regions that cover some 20% of the Earth's terrestrial surface. Exploring three approaches in which the estimated probability of extinction shows a power-law relationship with geographical range size, we predict, on the basis of mid-range climate-warming scenarios for 2050, that 15-37% of species in our sample of regions and taxa will be 'committed to extinction'. When the average of the three methods and two dispersal scenarios is taken, minimal climate-warming scenarios produce lower projections of species committed to extinction ( approximately 18%) than mid-range ( approximately 24%) and maximum-change ( approximately 35%) scenarios. These estimates show the importance of rapid implementation of technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and strategies for carbon sequestration.
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          Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems.

          All ecosystems are exposed to gradual changes in climate, nutrient loading, habitat fragmentation or biotic exploitation. Nature is usually assumed to respond to gradual change in a smooth way. However, studies on lakes, coral reefs, oceans, forests and arid lands have shown that smooth change can be interrupted by sudden drastic switches to a contrasting state. Although diverse events can trigger such shifts, recent studies show that a loss of resilience usually paves the way for a switch to an alternative state. This suggests that strategies for sustainable management of such ecosystems should focus on maintaining resilience.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics
            Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst.
            Annual Reviews
            1543-592X
            1545-2069
            December 2006
            December 2006
            : 37
            : 1
            : 215-250
            10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.34.011802.132415
            © 2006

            Evolutionary Biology

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