Friday, 14 September 2018

A portrait of ancient elephant-like mammals drawn from multiproxy analysis

September 3, 2018 by Christopher Packham, report
Although world-famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes prided himself on his deductive prowess, in truth, a great many of his astounding observations resulted from inductive reasoning, by which he arrived at conclusions about events that he did not observe based on the evidence at hand. Similarly, biologists, ecologists and paleontologists strive to describe the world that existed before humans could observe or record it, based only on fossil information. Via induction, they attempt to reconstruct the prevailing climate during biological epochs, the dietary habits and behaviors of extinct animals, and the lineages of creatures for which sparse fossil evidence is available.
When Holmes examines the scene of a crime, he observes everything around him to collect multiple data points from which to draw conclusions. Modern paleontology might describe this as a multiproxy methodology, in which the analysis is complemented by multiple sources of information. A recent multiproxy analysis by an international collaborative of researchers has produced a vivid picture of the dietary habits of extinct proboscideans in Central Chile, thereby also informing a picture of South American microclimates that Holmes might approve of.
Gompotheres were elephant-like mammals that lived 12 to 1.6 million years ago during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs. Chilean gompotheres were the only group of proboscideans to reach South America, and survived to the end of the Pleistocene. Biologists refer to gompotheres as "ecosystem engineers," animals that significantly modify their habitats. They strongly affect species richness and geographic heterogeneity within their domains.
Paleontologists have recognized an array of dietary categories based on the dental morphology evidenced in fossils, including browsing, grazing and mixed feeding. However, because dietary patterns are strongly influenced by the environment, dental morphology alone may not provide enough evidence to draw conclusions about dietary habits. For the current study, the researchers analyzed multiple points of evidence to determine the diets of Chilean gompotheres, including stable isotopes, dental microwear, and dental calculus microfossils derived from molar fossils found at 30 Late Pleistocene sites.

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