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At the end of the Pleistocene (roughly 11,500 years ago), many large mammals became extinct. Large mammals in the Americas and Australia were particularly hard-hit. In Australia, 15 of the continent's 16 of large mammals died out; North America lost 33 of 45 genera of large mammals, and in South America 46 of 58 such genera went extinct. In contrast, Europe lost only 7 of 23 such genera, and in Africa south of the Sahara only 2 of 44 died out. What caused these extinctions Why did these extinctions eliminate mostly large mammals Why were the extinctions most severe in Australia and the Americas No completely satisfactory explanation exists, but two competing hypotheses are currently being debated. One holds that rapid climatic changes at the end of the Pleistocene caused extinctions, whereas another, called prehistoric overkill, holds that human hunters were responsible. Rapid changes in climate and vegetation occurred over much of Earth's surface during the late Pleistocene, as glaciers began retreating. The North American and northern Eurasian open steppe tundras (treeless and permanently frozen land areas) were replaced by conifer and broadleaf forests as warmer and wetter conditions prevailed. The Arctic region changed from a productive herbaceous one that supported a variety of large mammals, to a relatively barren waterlogged tundra that supported a far sparser fauna. The southwestern United States region also changed from a moist area with numerous lakes, where saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and mammoths roamed, to a semiarid environment unable to support a diverse fauna of large mammals. Rapid changes in climate and vegetation can certainly affect animal populations, but the climate hypothesis presents several problems. First, why did the large mammals not migrate to more suitable habitats as the climate and vegetation changed After all, many other animal species did. For example, reindeer and the arctic fox lived in southern France during the last glaciation and migrated to the Arctic when the climate became warmer. The second argument against the climatic hypothesis is the apparent lack of correlation between extinctions and the earlier glacial advances and retreats throughout the Pleistocene Epoch. Previous changes in climate were not marked by episodes of mass extinctions. Proponents of the prehistoric overkill hypothesis argue that the mass extinctions in North and South America and Australia coincided closely with the arrival of humans. Perhaps hunters had a tremendous impact on the faunas of North and South America about 11,000 years ago because the animals had no previous experience with humans. The same thing happened much earlier in Australia soon after people arrived about 40,000 years ago. No large-scale extinctions occurred in Africa and most of Europe because animals in those regions had long been familiar with humans. One problem with the prehistoric overkill hypothesis is that archaeological evidence indicates the early human inhabitants of North and South America, as well as Australia, probably lived in small, scattered communities, gathering food and hunting. How could a few hunters destroy so many species of large mammals. However, it is true that humans have caused major extinctions on oceanic islands. For example, in a period of about 600 years after arriving in New Zealand, humans exterminated several species of the large, flightless birds called moas. A second problem is that present-day hunters concentrate on smaller, abundant, and less dangerous animals. The remains of horses, reindeer, and other small animals are found in many prehistoric sites in Europe, whereas mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains are scarce. Finally, few human artifacts are found among the remains of extinct animals in North and South America, and there is usually little evidence that the animals were hunted. Countering this argument is the assertion that the impact on the previously unhunted fauna was so swift as to leave little evidence. The reason for the extinctions of large Pleistocene mammals is still unresolved and probably will be for some time. It may turn out that the extinctions resulted from a combination of different circumstances. Populations that were already under stress from climate changes were perhaps more vulnerable to hunting, especially if smaller females and young animals were the preferred targets.