As a little kid, I vacillated between wanting to be a paleontologist and a veterinarian. I think being an evolutionary biologist lets me do a little of both at times, but this week I did my younger self proud by bringing out my inner paleontologist through participating in a 3 day NSF sponsored workshop: “South American Megafauna Extinction: a test of synergistic effects of climate change and human population growth in magnifying extinction intensity”. It covered every science-inclined kid’s dream: Giant sloths? Check. Tar pits? Check. Sabertooth tigers? Check. Better than an Ice Age movie!
A team of about 30 scientists from all over the US and Latin America converged at Stanford’s Center for Latin American Studies — paleobiologists, archeologists, paleoclimatologists and radiocarbon dating experts— to develop a plan of attack for radiocarbon dating of over 100 megafaunal remains across a wide phylogenetic spread, with the ultimate goal of elucidating the Quaternary extinction chronology of South America in relation to anthropogenic and climatic perturbations.
Day 1: Wednesday began at 7am for Melissa and I as we picked up all the participants from their hotel and arrived at Bolivar house for the first time. The majority of the day consisted of participants introducing themselves and what role they will play in the project. Our very own Liz Hadly gave a talk on the genetic data describing the human colonization pathways of SA.
We had a very lively discussion on educational outreach strategies. One major point was that although in the US internet-based educational programs are highly effective, such as the Understanding Evolution website at UCMP, the internet is not the most effective medium for reaching students in SA. Instead, we floated ideas such as children’s books, making casts of local fossils, and TV and radio programs.
Day 2: Thursday was a long day filled with details and data. There was a discussion on good practices in radiocarbon dating protocols, and reports on new radiocarbon dates gleaned since the NSF proposal had been written. We were given an overview of currently existing databases, such as NEOTOMA, and how we could best make use of these structures to organize and publicize our data.
Rodolfo Dirzo of Stanford gave the research a very modern context by describing contemporary ecological effects of large mammal extirpation. The selective loss of large mammals, or “defaunation”, leads to an increased rodent abundance and a homogenization of vegetation. This could provide a testable hypothesis to examine the fossil record for similar ecosystem changes associated with the extinction of megafauna.
We also had a wonderful dinner at Liz and Tony’s house to further discuss our ideas over some homemade mole!
Day 3: Our final day was spent selecting taxa and sites to target. We outlined potential publications, chose a researcher or two to be in charge of a specific geographic region’s data, and even began discussing next year’s conference!
And of course, we took a group photo!
Hadly lab will contribute to this project by reviewing all available Caribbean radiocarbon dates, which is particularly useful for me as I study Caribbean mammals, extinct and extant. Understanding the patterns of extinction in SA, compared to what we know already in NA, will provide the most robust framework by far to really tease apart the details of extinctions in the Caribbean, particularly as they relate to “island” versus “mainland” patterns.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I often marveled at how papers in Science and Nature were able to tackle questions on a seemingly all-encompassing scale. Prior to this workshop, I had only done research involving myself advised by a professor- a very individualized approach to specific research questions. Now, I feel I understand how science gets done as a collaborative effort, with each researcher having his/her own expertise to contribute to the larger team. This is how big science gets done!
I am particularly excited to be a part of this project because I believe it comes at an important time when we seem to be recapitulating this loss of large-bodied mammal species all across the globe. Perhaps if we understand what we have already lost, what remains today will seem all the more precious to save.
- Alexis Mychajliw (@AlexisMychajliw)