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January 9, 2020

Biodiversity Backstory

Scientists have discovered that events from the ancient past are still impacting the diversity and distribution of mammal species worldwide. Supported by the National Science Foundation, this first-of-its-kind study is the work of researchers at UMass Amherst; Rice University; University of California, Riverside; and Arizona State University.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Biodiversity backstory.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

In the first study of its kind, a multi-institution team of researchers has discovered diversity and distribution of mammals today is still being affected by events from 20,000 years ago or more. Climate and human-influenced.

The study took five years 'cause it embraced the huge task of compiling and analyzing data on diets, body sizes and variety of species in some 515 mammal communities in tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The goal: Determine how well recent and ancient events -- climate and human -- could account for present-day diet, body sizes and species variation.

Turns out that historic climate does a better job than current climate in explaining today's mammal communities. And in areas like South America, historical human impacts are a better predictor of mammal communities today than are current or past climate.

As scientists look at how climate change and human influences will affect future species distribution, this study stresses, it's complicated. The unique histories of climate and human activity will continue to play a role in the biodiversity we'll see around the world.

Moving forward, it sometimes helps to look backward.

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