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Body size downgrading of mammals over the late Quaternary

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Science  20 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6386, pp. 310-313
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5987

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Megafaunal loss

Today, it is well known that human activities put larger animals at greater risk of extinction. Such targeting of the largest species is not new, however. Smith et al. show that biased loss of large-bodied mammal species from ecosystems is a signature of human impacts that has been following hominin migrations since the Pleistocene. If the current trend continues, terrestrial mammal body sizes will become smaller than they have been over the past 45 million years. Megafaunal mammals have a major impact on the structure of ecosystems, so their loss could be particularly damaging.

Science, this issue p. 310

Abstract

Since the late Pleistocene, large-bodied mammals have been extirpated from much of Earth. Although all habitable continents once harbored giant mammals, the few remaining species are largely confined to Africa. This decline is coincident with the global expansion of hominins over the late Quaternary. Here, we quantify mammalian extinction selectivity, continental body size distributions, and taxonomic diversity over five time periods spanning the past 125,000 years and stretching approximately 200 years into the future. We demonstrate that size-selective extinction was already under way in the oldest interval and occurred on all continents, within all trophic modes, and across all time intervals. Moreover, the degree of selectivity was unprecedented in 65 million years of mammalian evolution. The distinctive selectivity signature implicates hominin activity as a primary driver of taxonomic losses and ecosystem homogenization. Because megafauna have a disproportionate influence on ecosystem structure and function, past and present body size downgrading is reshaping Earth’s biosphere.

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