Magazine article Science News

Move over, Leo. Give Me More Elbowroom

Magazine article Science News

Move over, Leo. Give Me More Elbowroom

Article excerpt

The average size of the largest modern-day land animals on each of 25 oceanic islands and five continents strongly depends on the land area there, a new study shows. The formula holds across diverse animals and habitats, from the iguanas and owls that live on wave-washed outcrops in the Galapagos Islands to the lions and elephants that populate the plains of Africa.

The research looked at the largest carnivores and herbivores found in each of the areas during the past 65,000 years. That restricts the analysis to the period for which there's a fairly complete fossil record, says Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist at University of California, Los Angeles. It also enables the researchers to consider large animals that went extinct only recently, including mammoths and lions in North America, saber-toothed tigers in South America, and elephant birds on Madagascar.

For a given land area, the largest warm-blooded herbivores were about 14 times as heavy as the biggest warm-blooded carnivores. Among cold-blooded animals, plant eaters were around 33 times as heavy as meat eaters. Diamond and his colleagues report their findings in the Dec. 4 PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES.

The team's results are "compelling" and can be explained in terms of the food requirements of individual animals, says Stuart L. Pimm, a conservation biologist at Columbia University. Ecosystems can support larger populations if species evolve to smaller sizes or if their member's metabolisms become more efficient. …

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