The impact of large terrestrial carnivores on Pleistocene ecosystems
Van Valkenburgh et al
Large mammalian terrestrial herbivores, such as elephants, have dramatic effects on the ecosystems they inhabit and at high population densities their environmental impacts can be devastating. Pleistocene terrestrial ecosystems included a much greater diversity of megaherbivores (e.g., mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths) and thus a greater potential for widespread habitat degradation if population sizes were not limited. Nevertheless, based on modern observations, it is generally believed that populations of megaherbivores (>800 kg) are largely immune to the effects of predation and this perception has been extended into the Pleistocene. However, as shown here, the species richness of big carnivores was greater in the Pleistocene and many of them were significantly larger than their modern counterparts. Fossil evidence suggests that interspecific competition among carnivores was relatively intense and reveals that some individuals specialized in consuming megaherbivores. To estimate the potential impact of Pleistocene large carnivores, we use both historic and modern data on predator–prey body mass relationships to predict size ranges of their typical and maximum prey when hunting as individuals and in groups. These prey size ranges are then compared with estimates of juvenile and subadult proboscidean body sizes derived from extant elephant growth data. Young proboscideans at their most vulnerable age fall within the predicted prey size ranges of many of the Pleistocene carnivores. Predation on juveniles can have a greater impact on megaherbivores because of their long interbirth intervals, and consequently, we argue that Pleistocene carnivores had the capacity to, and likely did, limit megaherbivore population sizes.