Article image

Vanishing giants: Study reveals shocking decline of large mammals in Africa

In a shocking study, Faysal Bibi of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin and Juan L. Cantalapiedra of the University of Alcalá have unlocked key insights into the history of African large mammals. 

Using measurements from thousands of fossilized teeth, the researchers have reconstructed the size and population data of these mammals over the past 10 million years. The task was not without its difficulties, especially due to the various uncertainties inherent to fossil preservation. 

How the study was conducted

However, despite these challenges, their research has identified a significant correlation between the size of an animal and its population, a relationship which remains consistent across both fossil and extant communities. This discovery suggests that the same fundamental ecological principles shaping living communities today are also echoed in the ancient fossil record.

In creatures exceeding 45 kg, Bibi and Cantalapiedra uncovered evidence for a decrease in population density correlating with an increase in size. This finding corresponds with the known “rule of metabolic scaling,” where larger species tend to have lower population densities compared to their smaller counterparts.

What the researchers discovered

Interestingly, the experts discovered that mammals ranging between approximately 15 to 45 kg were less abundant than predicted, in both living and fossil communities. This unexpected observation, according to the researchers, is likely due to these species’ rarity in savanna habitats, an ecosystem where monkeys and small forest-dwelling antelopes are scarce.

A major revelation came when they investigated how the relationship between size and abundance has evolved over time. Earlier communities, particularly those older than about 4 million years, displayed a markedly higher number of large individuals. Furthermore, a higher proportion of total biomass was found in larger size categories compared to younger communities.

This abundant presence of large mammals in ancient African ecosystems – some elephants weighed in at over 10 tons – is an extraordinary phenomenon seldom seen in today’s ecosystems. 

Over time, there has been a steady disappearance of large individuals from the fossil record. This slow loss reflects the long-term decline of large mammal diversity since the late Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, leading to the smaller and less diverse communities we observe today.

African megafauna began vanishing much earlier than believed

This study bolsters recent arguments suggesting that the massive loss of African megafauna began significantly earlier than previously thought, challenging the prevalent belief that humans were the primary drivers of these declines. 

While the dispersion of humans worldwide during the late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs coincides with significant extinction events, this new research supports the idea that megafaunal losses in Africa began as early as 4 million years ago, much before humans developed efficient hunting strategies. Instead, the researchers identify environmental factors, such as a decrease in global temperatures and the growth of tropical grasslands, as potential triggers for megafaunal extinctions.

Bibi and Cantalapiedra also found that the gradual disappearance of larger mammals and the consequent shift in biomass distribution could be associated with a reduction in primary productivity. Using a well-established relationship between mammalian tooth morphology and current plant productivity, they estimated past productivity for African communities. 

The findings suggest a significant, approximately two-thirds decrease in productivity since the Late Miocene epoch, more than 5 million years ago. This global trend could have substantially reduced the carrying capacity of large mammal communities, thereby accelerating the decline of large species diversity and hastening their extinction.

Ecosystem dynamics are incredibly complex

This research provides a fresh perspective on ecosystem dynamics and the complex interplay between individuals, species, and their environment. It demonstrates how using fossil abundance data and size-based methodologies can offer invaluable insights into the ecological factors driving extinction.

The findings of this study represent a significant step forward in our understanding of African megafaunal extinctions and the evolution of ecosystems over geological time. The research, published in the journal Science, has the potential to shape future conservation strategies and enhance our capacity to predict and manage biodiversity loss in response to environmental shifts. 

The study emphasizes the deep-time origins of African megafaunal losses, challenging conventional wisdom and presenting a new timeline for these declines.

Using these findings to slow this rapid decline

Understanding how environmental changes impacted past ecosystems can help predict how current and future shifts might affect biodiversity. The data provided by Bibi and Cantalapiedra’s study may inform conservation efforts, highlighting the potential consequences of losing large individuals from our ecosystems. 

The work provides a sobering reminder of the cascading effects environmental changes can have on biodiversity and the overall health of our planet. This study also highlights the importance of paleontological research in conservation science. 

By peering into the past, scientists can gain a better understanding of how ecological communities are structured and how they respond to large-scale changes. This knowledge can, in turn, provide valuable insights for managing the impacts of ongoing environmental changes on our ecosystems.

In conclusion, the research has opened new avenues for understanding the dynamics of ecosystems and the complex interactions between individuals, species, and their environment. Their findings offer fresh perspectives that can contribute to mitigating the impact of biodiversity loss. 

This in-depth exploration into the life and death of ancient African megafauna offers valuable lessons for the present and future, showing how vital it is to preserve our planet’s biodiversity for generations to come.

More about African megafauna 

African megafauna refers to the continent’s large animals, typically weighing over 100 pounds or around 45 kilograms. This group includes a diverse range of animals, from large herbivores like elephants and giraffes to large carnivores like lions and hyenas. It also includes a variety of lesser-known, yet equally impressive species such as the hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and the Cape buffalo.

The term “megafauna” is often associated with animals from a previous geological era, notably the Pleistocene epoch which ended around 11,700 years ago. During this time, Africa was home to a number of species that are now extinct, such as various species of proboscideans (the group that includes elephants and their extinct relatives) and the saber-toothed cat.

Africa is unique in that it’s the only continent that has preserved a diverse range of megafauna to the present day. For instance, in many parts of the world, megafauna such as mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, an event known as the Quaternary extinction. However, Africa retained much of its large mammalian biodiversity, with the extant fauna including charismatic species like elephants, rhinos, and big cats.

That said, Africa’s megafauna has not been immune to decline. Many species have seen their ranges shrink and populations dwindle due to human activity such as habitat destruction, hunting, and climate change. Even animals that are seemingly plentiful, like elephants, face significant threats that could lead to their extinction if not properly addressed.

Furthermore, the research conducted by Bibi and Cantalapiedra suggests that this trend is not entirely new. Their findings indicate that the loss of megafauna in Africa started around 4 million years ago, far earlier than the spread of humans. They argue that changes in climate and habitat, rather than human hunting, initiated this gradual decline in megafauna diversity and abundance.

Understanding Africa’s megafauna and their history is crucial for conserving these magnificent animals and the ecosystems they inhabit. These creatures play vital roles in their environments, influencing everything from vegetation patterns to the behavior of other animals. Their loss would drastically alter African ecosystems and could have far-reaching impacts on global biodiversity.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day