‘End of the Megafauna’ examines why so many giant Ice Age animals went extinct

New book's colorful illustrations also offer perspective of just how large these creatures were

Goanna

VANISHING ACT  A relative of the Komodo dragon, this goanna, shown attacking a wallaby, lived in Australia 50,000 years ago. What happened to this and other extinct giant animals is the subject of a new book.

© by P. Schouten, All rights reserved

End of the Megafauna
Ross D.E. MacPhee and Peter Schouten (illustrator)
W.W. Norton & Co., $35

Today’s land animals are a bunch of runts compared with creatures from the not-too-distant past. Beasts as big as elephants, gorillas and bears were once much more common around the world. Then, seemingly suddenly, hundreds of big species, including the woolly mammoth, the giant ground sloth and a lizard weighing as much as half a ton, disappeared. In End of the Megafauna, paleomammalogist Ross MacPhee makes one thing clear: The science on what caused the extinctions of these megafauna — animals larger than 44 kilograms, or about 100 pounds — is far from settled.

MacPhee dissects the evidence behind two main ideas: that as humans moved into new parts of the world over the last 50,000 years, people hunted the critters into oblivion, or that changes in climate left the animals too vulnerable to survive. As MacPhee shows, neither scenario matches all of the available data.

Throughout, Peter Schouten’s illustrations, reminiscent of paintings that enliven natural history museums, bring the behemoths back to life. At times, MacPhee slips in too many technical terms. But overall, he offers readers an informative, up-to-date overview of a fascinating period in Earth’s history.

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Erin Wayman

Erin Wayman is the magazine managing editor. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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