|The Dodo, a bird of Mauritius, became extinct during the mid-late seventeenth century after humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes and introduced animals that ate their eggs.|
The ongoing extinction event seems more outstanding if we follow tradition and separate the recent extinction (approximately since the industrial revolution) from the Pleistocene extinction near the end of the last ice age. The latter is exemplified by the extinction of the woolly mammoth and, incorrectly, the Neanderthal people.
However, modern climatology suggests the current Holocene epoch is no more than the latest in a series of interglacial intervals. Furthermore, there is a continuum of extinctions between 13,000 years ago and now. If only considering human impact, the vulnerability and extinction rate of species simply rises with the increase in human population, so there would be no need to separate the Pleistocene extinction from the recent one. Nevertheless, the Pleistocene extinction event is large enough and has not been resolved completely.
The Ice Age extinction event is characterised by the extinction of many large mammals weighing more than 40 kg. In North America around 33 of 45 genera of large mammals became extinct, in South America 46 of 58, in Australia 15 of 16, in Europe 7 of 23, and in Subsaharan Africa only 2 of 44. The South American extinction witnessed the aftermath of the Great American Interchange. Only in South America and Australia did the extinction occur at family taxonomic levels or higher.
There are two main hypotheses concerning the Pleistocene extinction:
The prehistoric overkill hypothesis is not universally applicable and is imperfectly confirmed. For instance, there are ambiguities around the timing of sudden extinctions of marsupial Australian megafauna. Biologists note that comparable extinctions have not occurred in Africa, where the fauna evolved with hominids. Post-glacial megafaunal extinctions in Africa have been spaced over a longer interval.
An alternative to the theory of human responsibility is Alexander Tollmann's bolide theory, a more controversial hypothesis which claims that the Holocene was initiated by an extinction event caused by bolide impacts.
(circa 15,000 years ago)
(by 9000 years ago)
During the last 50 thousand years, including the end of the last ice age, approximately 33 genera of large mammals have become extinct in North America. Of these, 15 genera extinctions can be reliably attributed to a brief interval of 11.5 to 10 thousand radiocarbon years before present, shortly following the arrival of the Clovis people in North America. Most other extinctions are poorly constrained in time, though some definitely occurred outside of this narrow interval. Contrary to this, only about half a dozen small mammals disappeared during this time. Previous North American extinction pulses had occurred at the end of glaciations, but not with such an imbalance between large mammals and small ones. The megafaunal extinctions include twelve genera of edible herbivores (H), and five large, dangerous carnivores (C). North American extinctions included
The survivors are as significant as the losses: bison, moose (recent immigrants through Beringia), elk, caribou, deer, pronghorn, muskox, bighorn sheep, mountain goat. All save the pronghorns descended from Asian ancestors that had evolved human predators.
The culture that has been connected with the wave of extinctions in North America is the paleo-Indian culture associated with the Clovis people (q.v.), who were thought to use spear throwers to kill large animals. The chief opposition to the "prehistoric overkill hypothesis" has been that population of humans such as the Clovis culture were too small to be ecologically significant. Other generalized evocations of climate change fail under detailed scrutiny.
Lack of tameable megafauna was one of the reasons why Amerindian civilizations evolved differently than Old World ones. Critics have disputed this by arguing that llama, vicuña, and bison were domesticated
In South America, which had remained largely unglaciated except for increased mountain glaciation in the Andes, there was a contemporaneous but smaller wave of extinctions.
The sudden spate of extinctions came earlier than in the Americas. Most evidence points to the period immediately after the first arrival of humans — thought to be a little under 50,000 years ago — but scientific argument continues as to the exact date range. The Australian extinctions included:
c. AD 1500, several species became extinct after Polynesian settlers arrived, including:
Recent research, based on archaeological and paleontological digs on 70 different islands, has shown that numerous species went extinct as people moved across the Pacific, starting 30,000 years ago in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands (Steadman & Martin 2003). It is currently estimated that among the bird species of the Pacific some 2000 species have gone extinct since the arrivial of humans (Steadman 1995). Among the extinctions were:
Starting with the arrival of humans c. 2000 years ago, nearly all of the island's megafauna became extinct, including:
Starting c. 500 years ago, a number of species became extinct upon human settlement of the islands, including:
Megafaunal extinctions continue to the present day. Modern extinctions are more directly attributable to human influences. Extinction rates are minimized in the popular imagination by the survival of captive trophy populations of animals that are merely "extinct in the wild," (Père David's Deer, etc) and by marginal survivals of highly-publicized megafauna that is "ecologically extinct" (Giant Panda, Sumatran Rhinoceros, the North American Black-Footed Ferret, etc.) and by unregarded extinctions among arthropods. Some notable examples of modern extinctions of "charismatic" mammal fauna include:
Many birds have become extinct as a result of human activity, especially birds endemic to islands, including many flightless birds (see a more complete list under extinct birds). Notable extinct birds include:
Most biologists believe that we are at this moment at the beginning of a tremendously accelerated anthropogenic mass extinction. E.O. Wilson of Harvard, in The Future of Life (2002), estimates that at current rates of human disruption of the biosphere, one-half of all species of life will be extinct in 100 years. In 1998 the American Museum of Natural History conducted a poll of biologists that revealed that the vast majority of biologists believe that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction. Numerous scientific studies since then—such as a 2004 report from Nature, and those by the 10,000 scientists who contribute to the IUCN's annual Red List of threatened species—have only strengthened this consensus.
Peter Raven, past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, states in the foreword to their publication AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: "We have driven the rate of biological extinction, the permanent loss of species, up several hundred times beyond its historical levels, and are threatened with the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century."  The reasons for the current mass extinction are all human related and include deforestation and other habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, the introduction of non-native species, pollution and climate change.
Evidence for all previous extinction events is geological in nature, and the shortest scales of geological time are in the order of several hundred thousand to several million years. Even those extinction events that were caused by instantaneous events — the Chicxulub asteroid impact being currently the demonstrable example — unfold through the equivalent of many human lifetimes, due to the complex ecological interactions that are unleashed by the event.
There was a limited debate as to the extent to which the disappearance of megafauna at the end of the last ice age can also be attributed to human activities, directly, by hunting, or indirectly, by decimation of prey populations. While climate change is still cited as another important factor, anthropogenic explanations have become predominant.
There is still hope, argue some, that humanity can eventually slow the rate of extinction through proper ecological management. Current socio-political and overpopulation trends, others argue, indicate that this idea is overly optimistic. Many hopes are set on sustainable development and conservation. 189 countries which are signatory to the Rio Accord have committed to preparing a Biodiversity Action Plan, a first step at identifying specific endangered species and habitats, country by country.