Spores of the dung-fungi Sporormiella are routinely used as a proxy for past megaherbivore biomass and to pinpoint the timing of extinctions. Further ecological insight can also be gained into the impacts that followed initial human arrival in a region through correlation of spore abundance with other proxies (e.g. pollen, charcoal). Currently, the use of Sporormiella as a palaeoecological proxy has been restricted to landmasses where large-herbivore guilds are dominated by mammals. Here, we use New Zealand as a case study to show that the method can also be applied effectively to islands dominated by large avian herbivores. We examine 44 dung samples from 7 localities to show that Sporormiella spores were widely distributed in the dung of endemic avian herbivores (South Island takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri), kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), and several species of extinct moa, identified by ancient DNA analysis). In addition, we show that Sporormiella spores in a forest soil core from the Murchison Mountains, South Island, accurately trace the post-settlement decline of native avian herbivores, and combined with high-resolution radiocarbon dating reveal severely reduced local herbivore populations by the late 17th Century AD. The spores also trace the subsequent spread of Red deer (Cervus elaphus) introduced to the area in the early 20th Century AD. Our results suggest Sporormiella spores may provide a useful new tool for examining extinctions on numerous islands where terrestrial herbivore guilds were dominated by birds or reptiles. Our findings also highlight the need to consider entire herbivore communities (including birds and reptiles) when examining Late Pleistocene continental Sporormiella records, where the focus has often been tracing the decline of populations of large mammals.
- New Zealand