“Hypercarnivores” may have maintained ancient ecosystems by hunting mammoths and mastodons

Today’s lions would have had nothing on prehistoric hyenas.
Today’s lions would have had nothing on prehistoric hyenas.
Image: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
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Prehistoric carnivores may have been bad for plant-eaters, but good for the environment. After analyzing 15,000-year-old fossil records, a group of evolutionary biologists calculated the size of prehistoric carnivores and herbivores and concluded that huge ”hypercarnivores” could have hunted massive mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths—curbing any potential overconsumption of plant life.

In a report released online on Oct. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers led by paleoecologist Blaire Van Valkenburg estimated that prehistoric “hyper carnivores” would have been twice as large as modern-day wolves, lions, and hyenas. The largest cave hyenas, their research suggests, could have brought down a young, 5-year-old mastodon (weighing more than a ton).

The team arrived at their conclusions by studying the predators’ fossil records and molar sizes to estimate the size of hypercarnivores in the late Pleistocene age (from one million to 11,000 years ago), and then of the superpredators’ prey.

Although we think of massive, modern-day herbivores like rhinos and elephants as too big to be troubled by most carnivores, Van Valkenburg’s team suggests things might have been different in prehistoric times. Ancient predators may even have played a valuable role in prehistoric ecosystems by limiting the impact of ravenous herbivores on local vegetation, the team posits in its report.

“From the present day, it seems that big animals like elephants are immune to predation,” said biologist V. Louise Roth in a Duke University press release. “In fact, Pleistocene ecosystems were a lot more complex and predators could have had a larger impact.”