Led by Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Larisa DeSantis, researchers examined fossil teeth from mammals at two sites representing different climates in Florida:
a glacial period about 1.9 million years ago and a warmer, interglacial period about 1.3 million years ago. The researchers found that interglacial warming resulted in dramatic changes to the diets of animal groups at both sites. The study appears in the June 3 issue of PLoS ONE.We know that when the African climate shifted toward the end of the Miocene, the monkeys adapted to the savannas while the higher apes adapted to the jungles. Rather than do either, one group likely exploited the forest/fringe environment, which allowed them to be more generalists. It is probably this group that gave rise to the earliest hominids.
"When people are modeling future mammal distributions, they're assuming that the niches of mammals today are going to be the same in the future," DeSantis said. "That's a huge assumption."
Co-author Robert Feranec, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New York State Museum, said scientists cannot predict what species will do based on their current ecology.
"The study definitively shows that climate change has an effect on ecosystems and mammals, and that the responses are much more complex than we might think," Feranec said.