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Title: Australia's Mammal Extinctions
Author(s): Chris Johnson
Date of Publication: 2007 Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages:ix + 278 ISBN:
Price: Format:Paperback
Target Readership Sen Secondary







Content: 1 – A brief history of Australia's mammals; 2 - The Pleistocene megafauna; 3 - What caused the megafauna extinctions?; 4 - Tow dating problems: human arrival and megafauna extinction; 5 - The changing environment of the Pleistocene; 6 - Testing hypotheses on megafauna extinction; 7 - The ecological aftermath; 8 - Environmental change and Aboriginal history; 9 - Dingoes, people and other mammals; 10 - Mammal extinction in European Australia; 11 - What caused the recent extinctions; 12 - Interactions: rabbits, sheep and dingoes; 13 - Conclusions.

Review: Whilst Australia is rightly proud of its many sporting achievements (especially against the UK as I'm frequently told!) it's very much quieter on another world record that it holds almost without peer - faunal extinction. Australians of all backgrounds have contributed to a massive loss in the past 50,000 years and especially since European colonisation in 1788. What we might need to consider is how much was done by whom and do other records always bear this out? Here lies another mystery - did the Aboriginal people wipe out the larger fauna and was it climate (or was it both)? These issues have been a very hot issue around Australia for some years and so in addition to seeing what has been lost there's a chance to find out why (and it's not as simple as you might think!).

The introduction aims to set the scene with rapid coverage of mammal history in Australia, especially useful to those new to the area's fauna. From here, the book is divided into three parts. Part one covers the time up to 10,000 years ago (which might seen a long time ago but it should be remembered that there was already 40,000 years of Aboriginal history at that time). Many of the animals alive at this time were megafauna - giant kangaroos and wombats. There was a marsupial lion with one of the strongest bite pressures recorded. We also some idea of the controversy surrounding megafaunal losses. If chapter two opens the general ideas, it's chapter three that starts looking at the main controversy - what did kill of so many mammal species? There are several candidates including the popular ones of human intervention and climate change. Certainly there's a correlation between Aboriginal people reaching the 'mainland' and the start of megafaunal decline but this is not, obviously, causation. Chapter four continues this work by examining the problems behind dating. Aborigines, as hunter-gatherers, left very little tangible, datable evidence for their locations. Chapter five extends the debate by looking at the climate patterns we can see over the last 2 million years. The two final chapters offer some explanation as top what might have happened. Part two covers the period from 10,000 to 200 years ago i.e. recent Aboriginal past. This is important for Australians as it separates the two waves of humanity (Aboriginal and European) crossing the land. Chapter 8 looks at the climate changes of the time and how Aboriginal people might have dealt with them. Chapter 9 examines those creatures bought with the first settlers, especially the dingo, and the impact this might have on mammals. Part three covers the European times from 1788 onwards. This is crucial because it separates what went before and after and it also allows us to see the very great impact wrought by human action. Chapter 10 outlines the main losses and how this changed through time and space (such a large area was difficult to influence all at one time). Subsequently, there's an attempt to show how such extinctions might have come about. Chapter 12 looks at the interactions of introduced species and native fauna. With Aboriginal people it was the dingo; Europeans had the rabbit - smaller but no less deadly. A final chapter ties all three extinction waves (pre-historic, Aboriginal and European together) to make some sense of why Australia suffered so many losses over so long when other areas showed little of this. The result here is one of multiple causation and this alone makes it an interesting read.

Many people are aware of Australia and its recent past. However, detailed knowledge of the mammals is lacking and one might be forgiven for wondering about the value of the text. Basically, there are two great plusses for the book. Firstly, it describes in some detail the losses on this island and this, given interest in Australia, makes it worthwhile. However, secondly it starts an argument with the reader to which it keeps returning time and time again. The question is why so many mammals died? In answering this the author lays out the evidence and puts forward plausible suggestions. As such this is a great detective novel seeking to piece together a 'crime' of extinction. It does so with style and is thus not just a very useful guide but also a model of how such research could be presented.





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