Ancient hyper-carnivores that lived around one million years ago could vanquish mastodons and other gargantuan herbivores, researchers have discovered.
The findings, published online on October 26, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal how life unfolded during the Pleistocene.
Using mathematical models, researchers determined how effective hyper-carnivores had been at hunting down giant herbivores which roamed the Earth during that geological epoch.
At the time, the planet was populated with giant ground sloths (Megatherium), mammoths and mastodons. These voracious grazers could’ve ruined the environment, given their giant size and incalculable number.
The enormous plant-eaters, which lived between 1 million years ago and 11,000 years ago, could weigh several tons, and their feeding needs had the potential to wreck the planet’s vegetation beyond repair.
However, their population was kept in check by larger-than-life predators, which could’ve easily dwarfed modern-day wolves, hyenas and lions, according to estimations conducted by analyzing first molar fossil sizes.
Apparently, while contemporary animals of this kind weigh around 116 to 138 pounds on average, ancient hypercarnivores were around twice as large, weighing between 211 and 297 pounds.
At the time, the number of carnivore species was much greater than nowadays, and researchers believe that this caused intense rivalry between these giant predators.
When there are many such hunters but little prey, carnivores are forced to eat much more of the carcasses, including bone, breaking their teeth as they feed on their victim.
It was determined that indeed during that epoch tooth fractures were around 3 to 5 times more prevalent among predators, which shows that their population was much larger at the time, and competition was fierce.
For example, ancient cave hyenas and saber-toothed cats had to depend solely on meat for their survival, and some of them were forced to specialize on tracking down and killing megaherbivors.
This wasn’t however an obstacle, given the fact that they were such effective hunters that one such animal could actually vanquish a 5-year old mastodon, weighing over a ton.
Moreover, when attacking in packs, prides or clans, these potent killers were able to turn even 9-year old mastodons weighing 2 tons into defenseless preys.
While their real impact on ancient megaherbivores can’t be fully assessed, given that extinct species like saber-toothed cats have no similar modern-day descendants, experts still believe that the study sheds new light into their importance in regulating their environment.
“The probable role these large predators played in maintaining stable ecosystems hasn’t been recognized until now”, declared Blaire Van Valkenburgh, study lead author and evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Even nowadays large herbivores can be greatly detrimental to the environment, due to their feeding habits.
For example, overgrazing occurs when animals feed on ground plants for extensive periods of time, and as a result vegetation no longer has the chance to recover and grow back.
Similarly, overbrowsing happens when animals like elephants, giraffes or white-tailed deer eat too many leaves off trees and shrubs, causing their destruction.
On the other hand, such habits have been proven to play a role pollination and seed dispersal, and there are natural plant protection methods that can limit this damage, such as the presence of carnivorous ants.
For now, study authors will be conducting further research, in order to understand the Pleistocene ecosystem more precisely, and learn more about how modern-day species have evolved.
Image Source: Flickr