It’s difficult to gather evidence from that far back, but a new study suggests that hypercarnivores played a major role for the ecosystem in the Pleistocene era, one that might’ve influenced most of today’s modern animals.
- Researchers studied the impact of prehistoric predators on megaherbivores
- A solitary saber-tooth cat could’ve taken down a juvenile megaherbivore, while a pack might’ve succeeded against an adult
- They estimated that hypercarnivores were responsible for killing 17% of megaherbivores
- Predators might’ve had a huge impact on the environment and ecosystem in consequence
Researcher and paleobiologist, Blaire Van Valkenburgh was not convinced of Charles Darwin’s theory that huge hebivores are safe from predators. In fact, she believes that the issue could be traced further back, which will give big cats or others of likewise diets, a bigger role in the integrity of the ecosystem. Their part could’ve been more important than we think.
Their analysis was based on modern day occurrences along with history within the last 50 to 100 years, compared to fossilized samples of prehistoric animals.
Like today’s elephants, megaherbivores, such as mammoths and mastodons, had a certain immunity to predators due to their size. Given that an adult could’ve exceeded 22,000 pounds in weight, it paints a clearer picture that prehistoric predators, such as saber-tooth cats, cave hyenas, or wolves, didn’t attempt to hunt them down. Given that they generally weighed between 330 to 880 pounds, they were at a clear disadvantage.
However, Van Valkenburgh brings the question of how juvenile megaherbivores fared. They weighed between 440 to 4400 pounds, but were fairly ignorant of the dangers around them. Their herds and mothers protected them, for the most part. However, there was a certain moment, a window of opportunity, when the large predators could’ve taken advantage.
The researchers started from the assumption that juvenile megaherbivores remained close to their mothers while nursing. However, there might’ve been a certain amount of time between weaning (the process of shifting from nursing to vegetation), and growing large enough to become impossible targets. That period made them vulnerable, because they were much more likely to wander off.
Thus, the predators came in.
According to Van Valkenburgh and her team of researchers, a single saber-toothed cat could’ve taken down a juvenile mammoth between 2 to 9 years old. A pack, on the other hand, could’ve even tackled a female adult. This could mean that prehistoric predators were responsible for wiping out 17% of young megaherbivores.
The study poses as an interesting answer to how the landscape survived in the Pleistocene epoch (between 12,000 to 2.5 million years ago). Herbivores were much more spread out and numerous, so it has been questioned how the vegetation did so well. They caused major devastations on the plants. However, carnivores might’ve been the ones to keep them in check.
In fact, due to the prehistoric predators, the ecosystem might’ve become what it is today. They provided with carcasses to feed numerous species (eagles, coyotes, foxes), left more vegetation for birds and small mammals, and assured the environment for aquatic animals, like otters or beavers. The megaherbivores might’ve deprived others of both vegetation and their waters.
Thus, it has been suggested that these hypercarnivores could’ve had a bigger impact on the population of megaherbivores and the ecosystem than believed. And it could still be true today.
Image source: carnivoraforum.com