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Home > Human Impact > Megafauna

When people first arrived on Madagascar's shores 2,000 years ago, they must have been awed by the sight of the 10-foot-tall flightless elephant bird. Now extinct, this fowl may not have been as tasty as chicken, but migrants probably ate it all the same. Cut marks on partly fossilized bones show that the newcomers butchered and ate some of the 18 or more lemur species that are now extinct. Researchers disagree about what caused the disappearance of these and other large animals. The majority of scientists say humans played a role, though it remains hotly debated how the creatures were eliminated: through over-hunting, the introduction of a deadly animal virus or forest logging.

Scientists continue to be baffled by what one researcher calls a "deadly syncopation." Wherever people have traveled (including Australia, Europe and the Americas), large animal species, known as megafauna have become extinct. Since humans came so late to Madagascar, some researchers believe the island may be the best place to settle the long-running debate. David Burney, a professor at Fordham University, has been visiting Madagascar for nearly 20 years, searching for an explanation to the mystery: what killed the megafauna?

The Burney Expedition
Fossils may hold clues to unraveling the mystery of humanity's role in the great extiniction.
The Bone Collectors
Scientist collect and catalogue bones from the present and ancient past. What secrets do they hold?
Science and the Sacred
What's science and what's sacred are usually far apart. But on David Burney's expedition, researchers ask the ancestors for permission before they dig.
Prospecting in the Bush
A member of David Burney's team went on a wild goose chase through the spiny bush that didn't lead to more megafauna bones but did uncover a minor footnote in the region's history.

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