Prior to the global expansion of Homo sapiens, ecosystems across the world teemed with large animals (megafauna). Elephants, for example, occurred from Patagonia to the British Isles and the Cape until just 10,000 years ago. Since then megafauna have declined dramatically, a decline that continues to the present day, driven by land conversion to agriculture to feed growing human populations and unsustainable hunting. In some regions, however, declines have been replaced by comebacks (e.g., re-expansion of wolves in Europe). At the same time, evidence is emerging that megafauna may be crucial for ecosystem function and may even affect the Earth’s climate and nutrient cycling. Reflecting this, it is increasingly, but controversially argued that megafauna should be reintroduced to restore their ecological functions (rewilding). Human impacts are now so pervasive that officially defining a new geological epoch (the Anthropocene, epoch of man) for the present is being considered. Given intensifying human impacts on Earth’s environment – with pronounced increases in the human population and strong climate changes likely across the 21st century – we are now at a crossroads for Earth’s megafauna. Do we let it become lost or do we attempt to restore it and its functional importance?
The project will focus on developing a solid, synthetic understanding of megafauna ecosystem ecology and its potential role in developing a sustainable, biodiverse future. To this end, MegaPast2Future will develop new theory on the role of megafauna in ecosystems (work package 1), provide a novel understanding of the evolutionary and biogeographic development of the world’s megafauna and their ecosystem importance (work package 2), do field-based testing of key theory and hypotheses (work package 3), and assess and improve the scope for human-megafauna coexistence in the Anthropocene (work package 4). Given the complexity of the problem, the methodology will be interdisciplinary, integrating macroecology, theoretical ecology, paleobiology, experimental ecology, geography, economics, and conservation.