Causes and Consequences of Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinctions as Revealed from Rancho La Brea Mammals

TitleCauses and Consequences of Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinctions as Revealed from Rancho La Brea Mammals
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsDeSantis, LRG, Crites, JM, Feranec, RS, Fox-Dobbs, K, Farrell, AB, Harris, JM, Takeuchi, GT, Cerling, TE
JournalCurrent Biology
Pagination2488 - 2495.e2
Date Published08/2019
KeywordsCanis, Carnivora, dental microwear, Diet, mammals, paleoecology, Pleistocene, Rancho La Brea, Smilodon, Stable isotopes

The fossils preserved in the Rancho La Brea “tar” seeps in southern California span the past ∼50,000 years and provide a rare opportunity to assess the ecology of predators (e.g., the American lion, sabertooth cats, cougars, dire wolves, gray wolves, and coyotes), including clarifying the causes and consequences of the terminal Pleistocene extinction event. Here, a multi-proxy approach elucidates dietary responses of carnivorans to changing climates and megafaunal extinctions. Using sample sizes that are unavailable anywhere else in the world, including hundreds of carnivoran and herbivore specimens, we clarify the paleobiology of the extinct sabertooth cats and dire wolves—overturning the idea that they heavily competed for similar prey. Canids (especially the dire wolf) consumed prey from more open environments than felids, demonstrating minimal competition for prey throughout the latest Pleistocene and largely irrespective of changing climates, including just prior to their extinction. Coyotes experienced a dramatic shift in dietary behavior toward increased carcass utilization and the consumption of forest resources (prey and/or plant resources) after the terminal Pleistocene megafaunal extinction. Extant predators’ ability to effectively hunt smaller prey and/or utilize carcasses may have been a key to their survival, especially after a significant reduction in megafaunal prey resources. Collectively, these data suggest that dietary niches of carnivorans are not always static and can instead be substantially affected by the removal of top predators and abundant prey resources.

Short TitleCurrent Biology