Adam Wolf @ Princeton

Ecology, Earth System Science & Global Change Biology

Animal extinctions and the dawn of civilization

Christopher E. Doughty, Adam Wolf, and Yadvinder Malhi 2013. The impact of large animal extinctions on nutrient fluxes in early river valley civilizations. Ecosphere 4:art148.

The impact of large animal extinctions on nutrient fluxes in early river valley civilizations

Christopher E. Doughty 1,, Adam Wolf 2, and Yadvinder Malhi 1Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY United KingdomDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544 USA

Urbanization began independently in four river valley civilizations 3,500–5,000 years before the present (ybp) in fertile river valleys that originally had free-ranging large animals, including elephants, that eventually went locally extinct. Such large animals are disproportionally important in the lateral spread of nutrients away from nutrient concentration gradients common near floodplains, and the local extinction of the animals would have reduced this flow of nutrients into surrounding regions. Prior to the use of manure as a fertilizer, this natural spread of nutrients would have increased productivity and food yield, and its absence would have immediately decreased fertility to regions outside the floodplains. Here we calculate this changing nutrient flux using a “random walk” model and estimate that phosphorus (P) concentrations in the vegetation were reduced by >40% outside the floodplain following the loss of these animals and the process could take between 840 and 6,800 years depending on the region and the model parameters used. In the short term, we hypothesize that the decreased fertility may have reduced food yields and driven early agriculturalists from the outer regions away from rivers towards the more fertile floodplains. In the long term, yield and populations in outer regions would have decreased, constraining the potential growth of these civilizations, thus demonstrating how the loss of a key ecosystem service could have important repercussions for humanity that continue over thousands of years.

Key words:  early river valley civilizationselephantslateral diffusionmegafaunanutrientsurbanization

Received 5 July 2013; revised 8 October 2013; accepted 10 October 2013; final version received 5 November 2013; published 30 December 2013.


This entry was posted on November 5, 2013 .