Nav: Home

For the first time, scientists are putting extinct mammals on the map

August 08, 2018

Researchers from Aarhus University and University of Gothenburg have produced the most comprehensive family tree and atlas of mammals to date, connecting all living and recently extinct mammal species - nearly 6,000 in total - and overturning many previous ideas about global patterns of biodiversity.

While others have tried to map the ranges of all mammals or figure out their family tree, previous studies always left out one crucial group of mammals: species driven to extinction by humans.

"This is the first time we've been able to comprehensively include extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger or the woolly mammoth as well as account for human-induced regional range losses among extant species in such a large database, and it's really changing our beliefs about what is 'natural' or not", said biologist Søren Faurby of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who co-led the assembly of the database and the study, which was resently published in the scientific magasine Ecology.

Scientist often use maps of mammal species ranges to investigate patterns of biodiversity or to predict how climate change will affect species. But these maps are incomplete because they don't show species' natural ranges, only where they occur today. Many species have had their ranges drastically reduced by humans, for instance, through overhunting and habitat destruction.

"Brown bears may be emblematic of Alaska or Russia today but their range used to stretch all the way from Mexico to Northern Africa before widespread hunting by humans. If we want to predict how a warming climate will affect these bears, we can't leave out these natural areas of their range," said Faurby.

Tasmanian tigers and mammoths back on the map

It is also important to include species that have been totally exterminated.

"If we are studying global patterns of biodiversity, we really need to start considering species like the Tasmanian tiger that was hunted to extinction less than 100 years ago, a mere eye blink in geological time," said paleontologist and co-leader Matt Davis of Aarhus University in Denmark.

We associate large mammals like elephants and lions with Africa today, but for most of the last 30 million years, big animals roamed all over the Earth. It was only relatively recently that humans drove many of these large mammals extinct, leaving a world depauperate of giants.

"Even a species like the woolly mammoth, that we think of as prehistoric, lived up to the time the Great Pyramid was being built," Davis said.

Old maps and new algorithms

Assembling a database that included every species of mammal was no easy task. It took the research team, headquartered at Aarhus University, months just to stitch together existing datasets and fill in missing holes in the data.

They then poured over old maps and checked museum records to see where species natural ranges might be without the interference of modern humans.

Adding extinct species to the mammal family tree and making modern ranges for them was even harder. The scientists combined DNA evidence and data from fossil dig sites around the world with a powerful new computer algorithm to predict where extinct species fit in with mammals that are alive today.

New baselines for restoration

"This comprehensive database has already provided much needed evidence to inform restoration baselines and to provide re-assessments of several hotly debated ideas in biology, but this is just the beginning" said Jens-Christian Svenning, professor at Aarhus University and leader of the Aarhus team.

He expects that other researchers, conservationists, and educators will also find the easy to use and publicly available database valuable.

"We are already using the database to quantify and map human-induced biodiversity deficits and assess restoration potential across the globe.
-end-


Aarhus University

Related Biodiversity Articles:

Mapping global biodiversity change
A new study, published in Science, which focuses on mapping biodiversity change in marine and land ecosystems shows that loss of biodiversity is most prevalent in the tropic, with changes in marine ecosystems outpacing those on land.
Bee biodiversity barometer on Fiji
The biodiversity buzz is alive and well in Fiji, but climate change, noxious weeds and multiple human activities are making possible extinction a counter buzzword.
What if we paid countries to protect biodiversity?
Researchers from Sweden, Germany, Brazil and the USA have developed a financial mechanism to support the protection of the world's natural heritage.
Grassland biodiversity is blowing in the wind
Temperate grasslands are the most endangered but least protected ecosystems on Earth.
The loss of biodiversity comes at a price
A University of Cordoba research team ran the numbers on the impact of forest fires on emblematic species using the fires in Spain's DoƱana National Park and Segura mountains in 2017 as examples
Biodiversity and carbon: perfect together
Biodiversity conservation is often considered to be a co-benefit of protecting carbon sinks such as intact forests to help mitigate climate change.
The last chance for Madagascar's biodiversity
A group of scientists from Madagascar, UK, Australia, USA and Finland have recommended actions the government of Madagascar's recently elected president, Andry Rajoelina should take to turn around the precipitous decline of biodiversity and help put Madagascar on a trajectory towards sustainable growth.
Biodiversity draws the ecotourism crowd
Nature -- if you support it, ecotourists will come. Managed wisely, both can win.
Biodiversity for the birds
Can't a bird get some biodiversity around here? The landscaping choices homeowners make can lead to reduced bird populations, thanks to the elimination of native plants and the accidental creation of food deserts.
Biodiversity can also destabilize ecosystems
According to the prevailing opinion, species-rich ecosystems are more stable against environmental disruptions such as drought, hot spells or pesticides.
More Biodiversity News and Biodiversity Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.