Pre-historic hypercarnivores that took down megaherbivores have been found to be contributors in preventing the destruction of natural habitats during the Pleistocene era, a recent study revealed.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that animals such as saber-toothed cats and cave hyenas which managed to kill large herbivores such as mammoths, giant ground sloths and mastodons limit the latter's role in destroying the environment.
Previous studies show that modern herbivores such as elephants and deer strip off an area's vegetation by eating the surrounding ground plants and the leaves of trees. With that, scientists analyzed how the circumstances of ancient megaherbivores were different from those of modern herbivores.
The team from UCLA reported in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal that while modern elephants were immune to predators, their ancient counterparts weren't. They found that violent attacks from saber-toothed cats and cave hyenas had shaped ecosystems during the Pleistocene epoch.
Blaire Van Valkenburgh, lead author of the study, said that by comparing data on modern lion kills of elephants to their ancient counterparts, the hypercarnivores during the Pleistocene era had probably formed larger packs than the prides today. This means that ancient hypercarnivores were more successful in hunting down ancient herbivores which are definitely much larger than modern elephants.
To get the accurate data, the team examined the teeth fossils of the Pleistocene animals and applied the ratio of tooth size to body mass of their modern counterparts. Researchers said that the Pleistocene animals were possibly much 50 to 100 times larger than today's spotted hyenas, tigers and African lions.
"The group sizes of predators were considerably larger in the past than they are today, which would have made it easier for them to take down large prey," Van Valkenburgh said.
Researchers also assessed 50,000 instances of kills in the wild to estimate the maximum and typical sizes of the Pleistocene carnivores' preys. Indirect evidences were again based on fossil teeth.
The team said that more studies should be done in order to theoretically re-construct the Pleistocene ecosystems. Van Valkenburgh added that by understanding what the planet had lost and what wildlife activities occurred in the past can help us learn more about how our species evolved.
Scientists believe that their findings will have significant implications in current wildlife conservation efforts. Today's endangered species had begun to evolve during and before the Pleistocene era, they added.