Abrupt vegetation change after the Late Quaternary megafaunal extinction in southeastern Australia

Raquel A. Lopes Dos Santos, Patrick De Deckker, Ellen C. Hopmans, John W. Magee, Anchelique Mets, Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté, Stefan Schouten

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    48 Citations (Scopus)


    A substantial extinction of megafauna occurred in Australia between 50 and 45 kyr ago, a period that coincides with human colonization of Australia. Large shifts in vegetation also occurred around this time, but it is unclear whether the vegetation changes were driven by the human use of fire - and thus contributed to the extinction event - or were a consequence of the loss of megafaunal grazers. Here we reconstruct past vegetation changes in southeastern Australia using the stable carbon isotopic composition of higher plant wax n-alkanes and levels of biomass burning from the accumulation rates of the biomarker levoglucosan from a well-dated sediment core offshore from the Murray-Darling Basin. We find that from 58 to 44 kyr ago, the abundance of plants with the C 4 carbon fixation pathway was generally high - between 60 and 70%. By 43 kyr ago, the abundance of C 4 plants dropped to 30% and biomass burning increased. This transient shift lasted for about 3,000 years and came after the period of human arrival and directly followed megafauna extinction at 48.9-43.6 kyr ago. We conclude that the vegetation shift was not the cause of the megafaunal extinction in this region. Instead, our data are consistent with the hypothesis that vegetation change was the consequence of the extinction of large browsers and led to the build-up of fire-prone vegetation in the Australian landscape.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)627-631
    Number of pages5
    JournalNature Geoscience
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


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