Cenozoic environmental change in South America as indicated by mammalian body size distributions (cenograms)



A cenogram is a rank-ordered body size distribution of non-predatory terrestrial mammal species within a community. Studies of cenograms for modern faunas have shown that certain quantifiable attributes of cenograms are correlated with environmental variables such as rainfall and vegetation structure. Based on these correlations, cenograms of fossil communities have been used to infer palaeoenvironments and palaeoenvironmental variables. The present study uses cenogram statistics to interpret palaeoenvironmental conditions for eight Cenozoic South American mammal faunas, ranging from Eocene to Pleistocene in age. Body sizes for fossil taxa were taken either from the literature or were estimated using regressions of body size on molar length (or femoral bicondylar width) for modern mammals. Cenogram statistics are calculated for the eight fossil faunas and compared to similar statistics calculated for 16 modern South American mammal faunas, allowing palaeoenvironmental interpretations to be made. The palaeoenvironmental interpretations based on cenogram analyses sometimes support and sometimes contradict interpretations based on herbivore craniodental morphology (e.g. levels of hypsodonty). Simulations of expected errors in body size estimates for fossil taxa suggest that the discrepancies do not result primarily from erroneous body size estimates. It is possible that some of the incongruity in interpretations results from certain non-analogue attributes of South American faunas during much of the Cenozoic (e.g. the relatively depauperate mammalian predator diversity prior to the Great American Biotic Interchange).