The evolution of mammal body sizes: responses to Cenozoic climate change in North American mammals

Authors

  • B. G. Lovegrove,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Scottsville, South Africa
    • Correspondence: Barry G. Lovegrove, School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville 3209, South Africa.

      Tel.: +27 33 260 5113; fax: +27 33 260 5105;

      e-mail: lovegrove@ukzn.ac.za

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  • M. O. Mowoe

    1. School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Scottsville, South Africa
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Abstract

Explanations for the evolution of body size in mammals have remained surprisingly elusive despite the central importance of body size in evolutionary biology. Here, we present a model which argues that the body sizes of Nearctic mammals were moulded by Cenozoic climate and vegetation changes. Following the early Eocene Climate Optimum, forests retreated and gave way to open woodland and savannah landscapes, followed later by grasslands. Many herbivores that radiated in these new landscapes underwent a switch from browsing to grazing associated with increased unguligrade cursoriality and body size, the latter driven by the energetics and constraints of cellulose digestion (fermentation). Carnivores also increased in size and digitigrade, cursorial capacity to occupy a size distribution allowing the capture of prey of the widest range of body sizes. With the emergence of larger, faster carnivores, plantigrade mammals were constrained from evolving to large body sizes and most remained smaller than 1 kg throughout the middle Cenozoic. We find no consistent support for either Cope's Rule or Bergmann's Rule in plantigrade mammals, the largest locomotor guild (n = 1186, 59% of species in the database). Some cold-specialist plantigrade mammals, such as beavers and marmots, showed dramatic increases in body mass following the Miocene Climate Optimum which may, however, be partially explained by Bergmann's rule. This study reemphasizes the necessity of considering the evolutionary history and resultant form and function of mammalian morphotypes when attempting to understand contemporary mammalian body size distributions.

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