Ice Age Predators Evolved To Adapt To Warming Temperatures

By Shweta Iyer on April 12, 2014 1:47 PM EDT

dire wolf
Researchers analyzed the skulls of dire wolves (above) and saber-toothed cats to determine how warming temperatures during the Ice Age caused predatory animals evolve. (Photo: TobyOtter, CC BY 2.0)

Where did the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cats, and other large predators of the Ice Age go? Did they evolve into the existing elephants and tigers because of warming temperatures? Scientists examining the fossil-rich La Brea Tar Pits are attempting to analyse the link between climate change and the evolution of Ice Age predators, and if the current climate change will alter modern-day animals like it did millions of years ago.

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The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles have been the discovery site of a large number of Ice Age fossils such as ground sloths and mammoths, and predators like saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, which were similar to present day gray wolves, but much heavier. These predators prowled the Earth during the Ice Age, but began evolving in order to adapt to warming temperatures and melting ice 11,000 to 50,000 years ago. New research, for the first time, has documented the effect of climate change on La Brea predators.

The studies involved analyzing the gradual evolution of the skull of the predators.

"Different tar pits at La Brea accumulated at different times," said F. Robin O'Keefe of Marshall University, in a statement. O'Keefe was the co-author of the two studies, which examined dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. "When we compare fossils deposited at different times, we see big changes. We can actually watch evolution happening."

While sabre-tooths grew larger to take on larger prey, the dire wolves became smaller and more graceful to take on smaller prey. "Saber-toothed cats show a clear correlation between climate and shape. Cats living after the end of the Ice Age are larger, and adapted to taking larger prey," Julie Meachen of Des Moines University said in the statement.

At the pits, the scientists were able to see how the animals adapted to warming climates. Then humans showed up, though, and all the big ones disappeared, O'Keefe said. "We haven't been able to establish causality there yet. But we are working on it."

Although, there are several other theories given for the extinction of these colossal beasts, such as the spread of mankind across the globe or factors other than climatic change, the role of rising temperatures in the evolution of these animals cannot be disputed. More research on why animals evolve, as they do, in response to climate change needs to be conducted.

According to John Harris, chief curator at the Page Museum, where many of these fossils are held, "There is much work to be done on the specimens from the tar pits. We are working actively to bring together the researchers and resources needed to expand on these discoveries. Climate change is a pressing issue for all of us, and we must take advantage of what Rancho La Brea can teach us about how ecosystems react to it."

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