Ancient Egyptian Art Opens Window on Mammal Extinctions

Images of lions, giraffes, wildebeests and other creatures depicted on ancient Egyptian artifacts have helped scientists create a 6,000-year record of local mammal extinctions, according to a new study. Several of the extinction episodes correlate with known periods of drought and rapid human population growth.

While the correlations aren’t proof that drought and population pressures caused the animals to disappear, “it is an interesting pattern,” Justin Yeakel, a biologist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, told NBC News. What’s more, he added, “as the communities lost species, the system became more unstable and this was largely due to the loss of redundancy in the system.”

In other words, when an herbivore went locally extinct several thousand years ago, it wasn’t a big deal because there were plenty of other herbivores around for the carnivores to eat. Now, there are so few of any mammals left, that the loss of any one species has a larger impact on those that remain.