For the first time, scientists put extinct mammals on the map

For the first time, scientists are putting extinct mammals on the map
The maps show the diversity of Australian big herbivorous marsupials (a mammalian infraclass) as is today, and as it would be today, had most of the species not been extinct. The phylogenetic tree to the right shows the evolutionary relationships among a sample of extant and extinct species, while the circles illustrate the size of each species as well as their status: EP = Extinct in prehistory, CR = Critically Endangered, NT = Near Threatened, LC = Least Concern. Credit: Soeren Faurby, University of Gothenburg.

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 trees, previous studies always left out one crucial group of mammals: 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 recently published in the journal Ecology.

Scientist often use maps of 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, which 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 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 impoverished of giants.

For the first time, scientists are putting extinct mammals on the map
The blue color shows the range of brown bear today. The red color shows, where you would also find brown bears today, had they not been driven away by human activity. Credit: Soeren Faurby, University of Gothenburg

"Even a species like the woolly mammoth, which we think of as prehistoric, lived up to the time that 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 pored 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 fit in with mammals that are alive today.

"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 this accessible, publicly available database valuable. "We are already using the to quantify and map human-induced biodiversity deficits and assess restoration potential around the globe.

More information: Søren Faurby et al, PHYLACINE 1.2: The Phylogenetic Atlas of Mammal Macroecology, Ecology (2018). DOI: 10.1002/ecy.2443

Journal information: Ecology

Provided by Aarhus University

Citation: For the first time, scientists put extinct mammals on the map (2018, August 9) retrieved 24 September 2023 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Explore further

Without humans, the whole world could look like Serengeti


Feedback to editors