Author Archives: jeronen

The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems

The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems


Large mammalian terrestrial herbivores, such as elephants, have dramatic effects on the ecosystems they inhabit and at high population densities their environmental impacts can be devastating. Pleistocene terrestrial ecosystems included a much greater diversity of megaherbivores (e.g., mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths) and thus a greater potential for widespread habitat degradation if population sizes were not limited. Nevertheless, based on modern observations, it is generally believed that populations of megaherbivores (>800 kg) are largely immune to the effects of predation and this perception has been extended into the Pleistocene. However, as shown here, the species richness of big carnivores was greater in the Pleistocene and many of them were significantly larger than their modern counterparts. Fossil evidence suggests that interspecific competition among carnivores was relatively intense and reveals that some individuals specialized in consuming megaherbivores. To estimate the potential impact of Pleistocene large carnivores, we use both historic and modern data on predator–prey body mass relationships to predict size ranges of their typical and maximum prey when hunting as individuals and in groups. These prey size ranges are then compared with estimates of juvenile and subadult proboscidean body sizes derived from extant elephant growth data. Young proboscideans at their most vulnerable age fall within the predicted prey size ranges of many of the Pleistocene carnivores. Predation on juveniles can have a greater impact on megaherbivores because of their long interbirth intervals, and consequently, we argue that Pleistocene carnivores had the capacity to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore population sizes.


Island Biogeography Revisited: an online experiment on book reading club

GrrlScientist (of the Guardian, among other things) and BiK-F / Senckenberg are doing an interesting reading experiment:

Discussion of the first chapter online:

Ancient carbon from a melting glacier gives high 14C age in living pioneer invertebrates

Glaciers are retreating and predatory invertebrates rapidly colonize deglaciated, barren ground. The paradox of establishing predators before plants and herbivores has been explained by wind-driven input of invertebrate prey. Here we present an alternative explanation and a novel glacier foreland food web by showing that pioneer predators eat locally produced midges containing 21,000 years old ancient carbon released by the melting glacier. Ancient carbon was assimilated by aquatic midge larvae, and terrestrial adults achieved a radiocarbon age of 1040 years. Terrestrial spiders, harvestmen and beetles feeding on adult midges had radiocarbon ages of 340–1100 years. Water beetles assumed to eat midge larvae reached radiocarbon ages of 1100–1200 years. Because both aquatic and terrestrial pioneer communities use ancient carbon, the term “primary succession” is questionable in glacier forelands. If our “old” invertebrates had been collected as subfossils and radiocarbon dated, their age would have been overestimated by up to 1100 years.

Mammal disparity decreases during the Cretaceous angiosperm radiation

Latest by Polly…


Fossil discoveries over the past 30 years have radically transformed traditional views of Mesozoic mammal evolution. In addition, recent research provides a more detailed account of the Cretaceous diversification of flowering plants. Here, we examine patterns of morphological disparity and functional morphology associated with diet in early mammals. Two analyses were performed: (i) an examination of diversity based on functional dental type rather than higher-level taxonomy, and (ii) a morphometric analysis of jaws, which made use of modern analogues, to assess changes in mammalian morphological and dietary disparity. Results demonstrate a decline in diversity of molar types during the mid-Cretaceous as abundances of triconodonts, symmetrodonts, docodonts and eupantotherians diminished. Multituberculates experience a turnover in functional molar types during the mid-Cretaceous and a shift towards plant-dominated diets during the late Late Cretaceous. Although therians undergo a taxonomic expansion coinciding with the angiosperm radiation, they display small body sizes and a low level of morphological disparity, suggesting an evolutionary shift favouring small insectivores. It is concluded that during the mid-Cretaceous, the period of rapid angiosperm radiation, mammals experienced both a decrease in morphological disparity and a functional shift in dietary morphology that were probably related to changing ecosystems.

Inferring biological evolution from fracture patterns in teeth

It is hypothesised that specific tooth forms are adapted to resist fracture, in order to accommodate the high bite forces needed to secure, break down and consume food. Three distinct modes of tooth fracture are identified: longitudinal fracture, where cracks run vertically between the occlusal contact and the crown margin (or vice versa) within the enamel side wall; chipping fracture, where cracks run from near the edge of the occlusal surface to form a spall in the enamel at the side wall; and transverse fracture, where a crack runs horizontally through the entire section of the tooth to break off a fragment and expose the inner pulp. Explicit equations are presented expressing critical bite force for each fracture mode in terms of characteristic tooth dimensions. Distinctive transitions between modes occur depending on tooth form and size, and loading location and direction. Attention is focussed on the relatively flat, low-crowned molars of omnivorous mammals, including humans and other hominins and the elongate canines of living carnivores. At the same time, allusion to other tooth forms – the canines of the extinct sabre-tooth (Smilodon fatalis), the conical dentition of reptiles, and the columnar teeth of herbivores – is made to highlight the generality of the methodology. How these considerations impact on dietary behaviour in fossil and living taxa is discussed.