The fossilized fangs of saber-toothed cats, a leopard-sized Promegantereon ogygia and a much larger, lion-sized Machairodus aphanistus, hold clues to how large, extinct mammals once shared space and food with other large predators 9 million years ago.
Paleontologists have analyzed the tooth enamel of two species of saber-toothed cats and a bear dog unearthed in geological pits near Madrid. Bear dogs, also extinct, had dog-like teeth and a bear-like body and gait.
Promegantereon ogygia and Machairodus aphanistus lived together in a woodland area. They likely hunted the same prey, horses and wild boar. In this habitat, the small saber-toothed cats could have used tree cover to avoid encountering the larger ones. The bear dog hunted antelope in a more open area that overlapped the cats' territory, but was slightly separated. Cerro de los Batallones in Spain is the special area where they were found. Of its nine sites, two are ancient pits with an abundance of meat-eating mammal bones. Agile predators, the researchers say, likely leapt into the natural traps in search of trapped prey.
"These three animals were sympatric—they inhabited the same geographic area at the same time. What they did to coexist was to avoid each other and partition the resources," said Soledad Domingo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology and first author of the new paper. "These sites offer a unique window to understand life in the past."
Millions of years before the first humans, the predators lived during the late Miocene Period in a forested area that had patches of grassland. Large carnivores such as these are rare in the fossil record, primarily because plant-eating animals lower on the food chain have outnumbered meat-eaters throughout history.
To arrive at their findings, the researchers conducted a stable carbon isotope analysis on the animals' teeth. Using a dentist's drill with a diamond bit, they sampled teeth from 69 specimens, including 27 saber-toothed cats and bear dogs. The rest were plant-eaters. They isolated the carbon from the tooth enamel. Using a mass spectrometer, which you could think of as a type of scale, they measured the ratio of the more massive carbon 13 molecules to the less-massive carbon 12. An isotope is a version of an element that contains a different number of neutrons in its nucleus.
Carbon 12 and 13 are both present in the carbon dioxide that plants take in during photosynthesis. Different plants make use of the isotopes in different ways, and so they retain different amounts of them in their fibers. When an herbivore eats a plant, that plant leaves an isotopic signature in the animal's bones and teeth. The signature travels through the food chain and can be found in carnivores as well.
"This would be the same in your tooth enamel today," Domingo said. "If we sampled them, we could have an idea of what you eat. It's a signature that remains through time."
Because the researchers can tell what the herbivores ate, they can surmise what their habitat was like. They believe the animals in this study lived in a wooded area that contained patches of grassland.
The cats showed no significant difference in their stable carbon isotope ratios. That means they likely fed on the same prey and lived in the same habitat, but the posits that the species each fed on different-sized prey.
The findings demonstrate the timelessness of predator-prey relationships.
"The three largest mammalian predators captured prey in different portions of the habitat, as do coexisting large predators today. So even though none of the species in this 9-million year old ecosystem are still alive today (some of their descendants are), we found evidence for similar ecological interactions as in modern ecosystems," said Catherine Badgley, co-author of the new study and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Slavery In America: Back In The Headlines
- Cosmic Rays Jeopardize Deep-Space Astronaut Missions
- Top 10 Takeaways On Media-Hyped Harvard Stem Cell Diabetes "Cure" Paper
- What Americans Fear Most Isn't Ebola Or Terrorism, It's...
- Stunning Finds From Ancient Greek Shipwreck
- In Defense Of NIMBY-ism
- Great Earthquakes Doubled In The Most Recent 10 Year Period - What That Means
- "Good comment shining genji, but some people do not need fancy arguments to uphold their status..."
- "The terms you use repeatedly and your circlic logic reeks of one religious group, maybe you just..."
- "why are you in all the arguments? Teach me how to get into more arguments. Also, teach me wft to..."
- "So if spirituality is selected for, that has nothing to do with evolution. If that is the case..."
- "said the unscientifically backed atheist to the other atheist..."
- An end to fat shaming? The 50 year DNA mystery of metabolic dysfunction may soon be solved
- Egg freezing: a smart career move?
- Women carry fetal DNA long after children’s birth
- Despite resistance, China will dominate future of GMOs
- Should Science and Nature run advertorial by wacky Dr. Bronner’s that misleads on GMOs?
- Jack the Ripper’s identity remains a mystery after error in DNA analysis revealed
- Teenage self-harm linked to problems in later life
- Unsteady on your feet? Little touches could make all the difference
- Promising blood biomarkers identified for colorectal cancer: Is a screening blood test within reach?
- Studies must be carried out to determine whether exercise slows the onset of type 1 diabetes in children and adults
- Clot dissolver tPA's tardy twin could aid in stroke recovery