When you think of large, extinct animals, dinosaurs are the first to spring to mind. But these were not the only large creatures to have roamed the Earth. In fact, there have been some giants around at the same time as us humans. We call these animals Pleistocene mega-fauna.
The Pleistocene is more commonly known as the Ice Age and it lasted from 2,500,000 years ago until just 9,700 BC. Mega-fauna (as you’ve probably guessed) means ‘large animals.’ Any creature which weighs more than 44kg counts as mega-fauna, so there are still a few animals around today that qualify – elephants, hippos and even humans – but these pale into insignificance next to their Ice Age equivalents. Here’s a list of some of the more notable Pleistocene mega-fauna:
- Giant Beaver – These were 2.5 metres long compared to the 1 metre length of their modern cousins. Imagine the dams they could build!
- Woolly Rhino – Very similar to their modern counterparts but covered in thick fur to protect them from the cold. They had two horns on their snouts, one of which was about 60cm long!
- Aurochs – This was very similar to the modern ox, but larger at almost 2 metres tall and with two large horns. They survived beyond the Ice Age and the last one died in the 17th Century
- Smilodon – Better known as the sabre toothed tiger. This was about the same size as the modern tiger but armed with 28cm long canine teeth. Imagine meeting one of those on a walk in the woods!
- Eremotherium – This was a giant sloth which stood some 6 metres tall. That’s higher than a giraffe and a far cry from today’s more modest sloths
- Glyptodon – This was a very large armadillo. How large? Well, about the same size as a Volkswagon Beetle car!
- Mammoth – Probably the most famous of the Ice Age mega-fauna. Mammoths came in a variety of sizes but the biggest was considerably larger than an African elephant. They were all covered in thick fur to keep them warm
So what brought about the demise of these giants? Well, we think there were two things which, in conjunction, proved to be too much for the animals to bear. The first was the last glaciation. You see, the Ice Age wasn’t always cold. There were warm periods interspersed with colder ones in which the ice spread southwards from the Arctic. Though they were adapted to the cold, these periods of glaciation would have put extra strain on them.
They had survived past glaciations though, so why was this last one different? The answer is men. By that time (a mere 11,000 years ago) we had become quite good at hunting. We’d also spread to most parts of the globe – including the far north – so there was nowhere to hide. Does this sound familiar? Human expansion and climate change are the main threat to today’s animals. Hopefully we can learn the lessons of the past and stop today’s species going the way of their Ice Age ancestors.