Research team looks to past for insights on future of megafauna

Posted: September 19, 2022

By Mary Beth King

Are elephants important? How about rhinoceros? Or lions? What happens if Earth loses its last remaining large animals? New research by Professor of Biology Felisa Smith at the University of New Mexico shows the profound impacts of losing large-bodied mammals, or megafauna, in ecosystems.

Smith and her team have just published a paper, Late Pleistocene megafauna extinction leads to missing pieces of ecological space in a North American mammal community, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS), a prestigious peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In the research, Smith and her team looked to the past to gain clues about the future of large mammals, which are declining at an alarming rate.

“The conservation status of large-bodied mammals on Earth today is dire. Their decline has serious consequences because they have unique ecological roles. But this sort of biodiversity loss has happened before. Humans entering the Americas at the terminal Pleistocene around 13,000 years ago caused a widespread extinction of the large-bodied mammals present then through some of the same activities that endanger mammals today,” Smith said. “Here we use the fossil record of this earlier extinction to explore what happened afterwards to the surviving mammals.”  

Read the full story at UNM Newsroom.