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Research Eyes Locomotion Of Extinct, Living Carnivores

KIMBERLY – Research into how limb structure corresponds with locomotion is lending insight into the habits of both extinct and living carnivores.

Dr. Joshua Samuels of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has co-authored a study on the topic that was published recently in the Journal of Morphology.

He and colleagues analyzed more than 100 living species of carnivorans, ranging from tiny weasels to gigantic polar bears, to analyze how limb proportions relate to locomotor habits of these species.

The mammalian order Carnivora includes a wide range of familiar animals, including cats, dogs, bears, and hyenas. These species make their living in different ways and can be specialized for running, climbing, digging, and swimming.

The study also helps to reveal the habits of extinct species, like saber-tooth cats and dire wolves. For example, very early dogs were good climbers, and an extinct group of sabertooths called nimravids, which looked a lot like cats, included strong climbers and prey ambushers, as well as one early running-adapted species.

In the research, the entire carnivore fauna from the tar pits at Rancho La Brea was examined. Giant American lions (Panthera atrox) and sabertooth cats (Smilodon fatalis) were terrestrial prey ambushers, while Pleistocene coyotes and dire wolves (Canis dirus) were better runners than their living counterparts.

“Many of the species at Rancho La Brea were doing something different from their living relatives,” said Julie Meachen at Marshall University, co-author of the study.

Not all Rancho La Brea carnivores were different, however. The wolves, foxes, badgers, bobcats, and lions from the last ice age were indistinguishable from their living relatives.

The new study is expected to help other researchers study locomotor evolution and allow more accurate reconstructions of past environments.

The new study can be found in the current issue of the Journal of Morphology:


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