Friday, July 2, 2021

[PaleoMammalogy • 2021] The Rise and Fall of Proboscidean Ecological Diversity

Dusk falls on East Africa's Turkana Basin 4 million years ago, where our early upright-walking ape ancestors, Australopithecus anamensis (foreground), shared their habitat with several coexisting proboscidean species, as part of a spectacular herbivore community containing some progenitors of today's charismatic East African animals.
Background (left to right): Anancus ultimus, last of the African mastodonts; Deinotherium bozasi, colossal herbivore as tall as a giraffe; Loxodonta adaurora, gigantic extinct cousin of modern African elephants, alongside the closely-related, smaller L. exoptata. Middle ground (left to right): Eurygnathohippus turkanense, zebra-sized three-hoofed horse; Tragelaphus kyaloae, a forerunner of the nyala and kudu antelopes; Diceros praecox - ancestor of the modern black rhino.

in Cantalapiedra, Sanisidro, Zhang, ... et Saarinen, 2021. 
Illustration: Julius Csotonyi
Proboscideans were keystone Cenozoic megaherbivores and present a highly relevant case study to frame the timing and magnitude of recent megafauna extinctions against long-term macroevolutionary patterns. By surveying the entire proboscidean fossil history using model-based approaches, we show that the dramatic Miocene explosion of proboscidean functional diversity was triggered by their biogeographical expansion beyond Africa. Ecomorphological innovations drove niche differentiation; communities that accommodated several disparate proboscidean species in sympatry became commonplace. The first burst of extinctions took place in the late Miocene, approximately 7 million years ago (Ma). Importantly, this and subsequent extinction trends showed high ecomorphological selectivity and went hand in hand with palaeoclimate dynamics. The global extirpation of proboscideans began escalating from 3 Ma with further extinctions in Eurasia and then a dramatic increase in African extinctions at 2.4 Ma. Overhunting by humans may have served as a final double jeopardy in the late Pleistocene after climate-triggered extinction trends that began long before hominins evolved suitable hunting capabilities.

Juan L. Cantalapiedra, Óscar Sanisidro, Hanwen Zhang, María T. Alberdi, José L. Prado, Fernando Blanco and Juha Saarinen. 2021. The Rise and Fall of Proboscidean Ecological Diversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01498-w