Oligo-Miocene climate change and mammal body-size evolution in the northwest United States: a test of Bergmann’s Rule
John D. Orcutt and Samantha S. B. Hopkins
Paleobiology: Fall 2013, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 648-661.
Whether or not climate plays a causal role in mammal body-size evolution is one of the longest-standing debates in ecology. Bergmann’s Rule, the longest-standing modeladdressing this topic, posits that geographic body-mass patterns are driven by temperature, whereas subsequent research has suggested that other ecological variables, particularly precipitation and seasonality, may be the major drivers of body-size evolution. While paleoecological data provide a unique and crucial perspective on this debate, paleontological tests of Bergmann’s rule and its corollaries have been scarce. We present a study of body-size evolution in three ecologically distinct families of mammal (equids, canids, and sciurids) during the Oligo-Miocene of the northwest United States, an ideal natural laboratory for such studies because of its rich fossil and paleoclimatic records. Body-size trends are different in all three groups, and in no case is a significant relationship observed between body size and any climatic variable, counter to what has been observed in modern ecosystems. We suggest that for most of the Cenozoic, at least in the Northwest, body mass has not been driven by any one climatic factor but instead has been the product of complex interactions between organisms and their environments, though the nature of these interactions varies from taxon to taxon. The relationship that exists between climate and body size in many groups of modern mammals, therefore, is the exception to the rule and may be the product of an exceptionally cool and volatile global climate. As anthropogenic global warming continues and ushers in climatic conditions more comparable to earlier intervals of the Cenozoic than to the modern day, models of corresponding biotic variables such as body size may lose predictive power if they do not incorporate paleoecological data.