24 June 2024

Extinction of the woolly rhinoceros


The extinction of the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) at the onset of the Holocene remains an enigma, with conflicting evidence regarding its cause and spatiotemporal dynamics. This partly reflects challenges in determining demographic responses of late Quaternary megafauna to climatic and anthropogenic causal drivers with available genetic and paleontological techniques. Here, we show that elucidating mechanisms of ancient extinctions can benefit from a detailed understanding of fine-scale metapopulation dynamics, operating over many millennia. Using an abundant fossil record, ancient DNA, and high-resolution simulation models, we untangle the ecological mechanisms and causal drivers that are likely to have been integral in the decline and later extinction of the woolly rhinoceros. Our 52,000-y reconstruction of distribution-wide metapopulation dynamics supports a pathway to extinction that began long before the Holocene, when the combination of cooling temperatures and low but sustained hunting by humans trapped woolly rhinoceroses in suboptimal habitats along the southern edge of their range. Modeling indicates that this ecological trap intensified after the end of the last ice age, preventing colonization of newly formed suitable habitats, weakening stabilizing metapopulation processes, triggering the extinction of the woolly rhinoceros in the early Holocene. Our findings suggest that fragmentation and resultant metapopulation dynamics should be explicitly considered in explanations of late Quaternary megafauna extinctions, sending a clarion call to the fragility of the remaining large-bodied grazers restricted to disjunct fragments of poor-quality habitat due to anthropogenic environmental change.


Fordham, D.A., Brown, S.C., Canteri, E., Austin, J.J., Lomolino, M.V., Haythorne, S., Armstrong, E., Bocherens, H., Manica, A., Rey-Iglesia, A., Rahbek, C., Nogués-Bravo, C., Lorenzen, E.D. 52,000 years of woolly rhinoceros population dynamics reveal extinction mechanisms. PNAS 121 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2316419121