The study found that the diets of the large cats were similar in different locations, especially in the post-glacial period. Wolves and bears, in contrast, ate different things in different locations. Prey species on the mammoth steppes included bison, horses, yaks, musk oxen, caribou, and mammoths. The researchers noticed changes in predator diets coinciding with an increase in caribou abundance starting around 20,000 years ago.
"During and after the last glacial maximum, many predators focused their attention on caribou, which had been a marginally important prey resource before then," Yeakel said. "Large cats began concentrating almost solely on caribou in both Alaska and Europe. Wolves and bears also began consuming more caribou in Alaska, but not in Europe."
The cave lions and saber-toothed cats of the mammoth steppes were morphologically similar to modern lions, but they went extinct within the past 10,000 years. There were bears similar to modern bears, as well as the short-faced bear, which was larger than a polar bear and has since gone extinct. Interestingly, the short-faced bear is the only species that did not focus on caribou in the post-glacial period.
After the last ice age, a growing human population coincided with the demise of the mammoths and other large fauna of the mammoth steppes. Many species are still around, however, including wolves and bears. According to Yeakel, studies of past ecosystems can inform scientists' understanding of modern carnivores and their capabilities.
"If you look at wolves today, they are specialist carnivores preying on large herbivores like deer and elk, but when we look in the fossil record we see that wolves are remarkably flexible. Their environment today is fairly artificial compared to when they evolved," he said.
The study found that large-scale patterns of interactions differed between locations, but remained stable over time. In Alaska, there was
|Contact: Tim Stephens|
University of California - Santa Cruz