The research team looks to the past for insights into the future of megafauna

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Are elephants important? How about a rhinoceros? or black? What would happen if Earth lost its last remaining large animal? New research from University of New Mexico biology professor Phylissa Smith shows the profound effects of the loss of large mammals, or megafauna, in ecosystems.

Smith and her team recently published a research paper, “The extinction of the Late Pleistocene megafauna leads to missing parts of the North American ecological space. mammal community, “in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS). In the research, Smith and her team looked to the past for clues about the future of large mammals, which are declining at an alarming rate.

“The state of conservation of large-bodied mammals on Earth today is catastrophic. The decline has serious consequences because it has a unique ecological role. But this kind of biodiversity loss has happened before. It caused humans to enter the Americas at the Ice Age stage about 13,000 years ago,” Smith said. The widespread extinction of large-bodied mammals present at that time through some of the same activities that endanger mammals today.” “Here we use the fossil record of this previous extinction to explore what happened next for surviving mammals.”

The team focused their efforts on the mammal community of the Edwards Plateau in Texas, examining thousands of fossils held at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, Texas. by measuring stable isotopes In fossil bones, they were able to characterize diet, and measurements of teeth and long bones allowed them to estimate body size. They were able to reconstruct the ancient food web in the final Pleistocene and see how it changed after the extinction.

“We found significant post-extinction community reorganization, particularly among carnivores, as well as a loss of ecological complexity, and many, many vacant niches. The loss of complexity likely means a decrease in ecosystem resilience,” said Emma Elliott-Smith. , a former UNM graduate student and co-author of the paper.

The results were especially startling for the feline guild, which included two species of sabertooth cats, the American cave lion, the jaguar, and the lynx.

“We found that after the extinction of the larger cats, the jaguar became the largest carnivore and shifted its diet to focus on bison, most likely children – a place previously filled by extinct cats,” Smith said. “Mountain lions that were previously absent probably due to competition became popular as lynx changed their diet and body size.”

“It’s interesting that we don’t see significant changes in the diet in dogs,” Elliott Smith added. “Wolves, foxes, and the remaining wolf remain largely in the same isotopic space and body size. It speaks to how resilient they are from an ecological standpoint.”

The recent decline of elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and other large-bodied mammals has serious ecosystem consequences due to their important functional roles, such as influencing environmental interactions, as well as plant structure and composition and biogeochemical cycles.

“Small mammals don’t play the same role within societies,” Smith said. “It is critical that we only understand how to retreat or the possibility extinction One of the last large-bodied mammals left on Earth may alter ecosystems. We cannot afford to lose these large mammals.”

“Our research on ancient mammals sheds light on what would happen if what remained of Earth’s large-bodied mammals became extinct – animals such as elephants, rhinos, zebras and lions – and shows how insights from the past can really help modern conservation efforts.”


Researchers are trying to understand the consequences of declining large mammal populations


more information:
Phylissa A. Smith et al., The late extinction of megafauna in the Pleistocene epoch leads to the loss of portions of ecological space in the North American mammal community, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115015119

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