There is an article in the Observer today that sets up this week's conference: Megafauna and Ecosystem Function from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene.
What killed off the giant beasts – climate change or man?
It introduces the topic quite nicely. The article does focus heavily on "what is the cause of the Pleistocene extinctions?" which we have deliberately made only a small component of the conference. This debate has been going on for decades, with interesting new data emerging all the time. It seems to be that a reasonably consistent view is emerging that humans had some role in all continents, with a possible strong interaction with climate change in North America and Europe.
We will get an update on this debate, but really want to focus on a different question which has been asked much less: what are the consequences of these past and ongoing extinctions, and can anything be done about them?
There are a few errors and misquotes in the article. Most notably, a confused paragraph about elephants eating avocados and fertilising the rainforest. This can be broken down more accurately into three parts:
1. Many fruit with large fleshy bodies and large seeds are likely to have been designed to be dispersed in the guts of megafauna. An avocado is an example of such a fruit.
2. Megafauna would have played a large role in dispersing these seeds through the forest, as forest elephants do in Central Africa today.
3. Separately, we have developed a model which suggests that megafauna play a large role in dispersing and diffusing nutrients through their dung.
All in all, an incredibly exciting few days are ahead. Podcasts and slides of most talks will be made available soon after the talks. And we will try out an experiment (for me anyway) in tweeting with the hashtag #oxmegafauna.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University