Science News

Ancient Megaherbivores Faced Deadly Super Predators

With the help of computer models, scientists are painting a picture of how giant predators such as the saber-tooth tiger took down mastodons, mammoths and other megaherbivores millions of years ago.

These new computer models are able to calculate how big of a target an ancient hypercarnivore – such as the saber-toothed cat and cave hyena – could have tackled, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

A million years ago, a single cave hyena would have been capable of tackling a 5-year-old mastodon weighing over a ton. In packs, these predators would have been able to take down a 9-year-old mastodon weighing in at an impressive 2 tons.

These findings explain how the ancient super-predators kept megaherbivores like the giant ground sloths, mastodons, and mammoths in check. These ancient predators were far larger than modern hyena, lions, and wolves.

Their role in “maintaining stable ecosystems hasn’t been recognized until now,” said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, lead author of the study and evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The probable role these large predators played in maintaining stable ecosystems hasn’t been recognized until now.

Research suggests that modern megaherbivores, such as elephants, are immune to predators. Scientists are now discovering that ancient hypercarnivores were able to limit megaherbivore numbers, reports CBS News.

To deduce the potential impact of these ancient predators, Valkenburgh and his colleagues analyzed fossil records to gauge size ranges for Pleistocene predators larger than 45 pounds. Today’s hypercarnivores weigh in at an average of 116 to 138 pounds, while ancient carnivorous beasts weighed in between 211 and 291 pounds.

The researchers estimated the size of ancient mastodons and mammoths using a mathematical formula that calculates the relationship of shoulder height to body mass based on previous research on modern elephants.

By looking at the size of preferred prey for modern carnivores, the scientists were able to estimate the size of prey ancient predators would have targeted.

The researchers concluded that juvenile mastodons and mammoths would have been prey for many ancient hypercarnivores, especially those that hunted in groups.

In spite of their being prey to hypercarnivores and human predators, many scientists still link the extinction of mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, and other megafauna to climate change.

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