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News Article

New database of all living and recently extinct mammals developed


This database is publicly available and is expected to become a valuable tool to study global patterns of biodiversity.

Researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark and University of Gothenburg, Sweden have produced the most comprehensive database of mammals to date, including family tree and atlas, connecting all living and recently extinct mammal species - nearly 6,000 in total.  The study was recently published in the scientific journal Ecology.

While previous studies have tried to map the ranges of all mammals or figure out their family tree, those studies always left out one crucial group of mammals, i.e. species 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," according to Søren Faurby of the University of Gothenburg, who co-led the study.

Scientists often use maps of mammal species ranges to investigate patterns of biodiversity or to predict how climate change will affect species. However, those maps are incomplete because they do not show species' natural ranges – instead, such maps only show where particular species occur today, although many species have had their ranges drastically reduced by humans, for instance, through overhunting and habitat destruction. Therefore, it is also important to include species that have been exterminated.

"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," Faurby was quoted as saying.

"If we are studying global patterns of biodiversity, we really need to start considering species like the Tasmanian tiger that was hunted to extinction less than 100 years ago, a mere eye blink in geological terms,"  according to Matt Davis, palaeontologist and co-leader  at the university of Aarhus.

"We associate large mammals 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."

"Even a species like the woolly mammoth, that we think of as prehistoric, lived up to the time the Great Pyramid was being built," Davis was quoted as saying.

Assembling a database of every species of mammal required pouring over old maps and checking museum records to see where species natural ranges might be without the interference of modern humans. Then, the extinct species were added to the mammal family tree. The scientists combined DNA evidence and data from fossil dig sites around the world with a powerful new computer algorithm to predict where extinct species 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" Jens-Christian Svenning, professor at Aarhus University and leader of the Aarhus team, was quoted as saying. "We are already using the database to quantify and map human-induced biodiversity deficits and assess restoration potential across the globe”, he added.

This publicly available database may prove a valuable tool for other researchers, conservationists, and educators.

Reference:

  1. Søren Faurby, Matt Davis, Rasmus Østergaard Pedersen, Simon D. Schowanek, Alexandre Antonelli, Jens-Christian Svenning. PHYLACINE 1.2: The Phylogenetic Atlas of Mammal Macroecology. Ecology, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/ecy.2443

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • M Djuric, DVM
  • Date
  • 09 August 2018
  • Source
  • Aarhus University
  • Subject(s)
  • Animal breeding and genetics