Diversity Aided Mammals’ Survival Over Deep Time

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When it comes to adapting to climate change, diversity is the mammal’s best defense. That is one of the conclusions of the first study of how mammals in North America adapted to climate change in “deep time” — a period of 56 million years beginning with the Eocene and ending 12,000 years ago with the terminal Pleistocene extinction when mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths and most of the other “megafauna” on the continent disappeared.

“Before we can predict how mammals will respond to climate change in the future, we need to understand how they responded to climate change in the past,” said Larisa R. G. DeSantis, the assistant professor of earth and environmental studies at Vanderbilt who directed the study. “It is particularly important to establish a baseline that shows how they adapted before humans came on the scene to complicate the picture.”

Establishing such a baseline is particularly important for mammals because their ability to adapt to environmental changes makes it difficult to predict how they will respond. For example, mammals have demonstrated the ability to dramatically alter their size and completely change their diet when their environment is altered. In addition, mammals have the mobility to move as the environment shifts. And their ability to internally regulate their temperature gives them more flexibility than cold-blooded organisms like reptiles.

The study, which was published on Apr. 23 in the journal Public Library of Science One, tracked the waxing and waning of the range and diversity of families of mammals that inhabited the continental United States during this extended period. In taxonomy, species are groups of individuals with common characteristics that (usually) can mate; genera are groups of species that are related or structurally similar and families are collections of genera with common attributes.

Scientists consider the fossil record of mammals in the U.S. for the study period to be reasonably complete. However, it is frequently impossible to distinguish between closely related species based on their fossil remains and it can even be difficult to tell members of different genera apart. Therefore the researchers performed the analysis at the family level. They analyzed 35 different families, such as Bovidae (bison, sheep, antelopes); Cricetidae (rats, mice, hamsters, voles); Equidae (horses, donkeys); Ursidae (bears); Mammutidae (mammoths); and Leporidae (rabbits and hares).

The study found that the relative range and distribution of mammalian families remained strikingly consistent throughout major climate changes over the past 56 million years. This period began with an extremely hot climate, with a global temperature about six degrees hotter than today (too hot for ice to survive even at the poles) and gradually cooled down to levels only slightly higher than today. It was followed by a dramatic temperature drop and a similarly abrupt warming and finished off with the Ice Ages that alternated between relatively cold glacial and warm interglacial periods.

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