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Late Quaternary vertebrates from the Upper Gunnison Basin, Colorado, and small-mammal community resilience to climate change since the last glacial maximum

  • Steven D. Emslie (a1) and David J. Meltzer (a2)


The Upper Gunnison Basin (UGB), Colorado, is a montane region characterized by unusual physiography and topographic isolation. Excavations of three caves in the UGB provide one of the most diverse records of high-elevation late Quaternary vertebrates in North America. The localities, Haystack Cave (2450 m above sea level [m asl]), Cement Creek Cave (2860 m asl), and Signature Cave (3055 m asl), together provide a near-continuous record of vertebrate communities that extends from before the last glacial maximum to the present. These communities largely represent a sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) steppe-tundra environment that prevailed throughout the UGB in the late Pleistocene. At least five taxa of extinct large mammals disappear from the UGB by the Early Holocene; one small mammal (the short-faced skunk Brachyprotoma cf. B. brevimala) also became extinct. The fossil record further indicates that only four small extant mammals (Sorex preblei, Dicrostonyx sp., Lemmiscus curtatus, and Urocitellus elegans) were extirpated from the UGB by the Early Holocene, in part because of community restructuring and loss of open habitats with expansion of forests to higher elevations. An analysis of taxonomic richness and evenness at Cement Creek Cave indicates high resilience in the small mammal community despite major climate shifts over the past 40,000+ yr.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author E-mail address: (S.D. Emslie).


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