Focus on Fossils: Paleobiologists to Unearth Ancient Megafauna in East Africa, Forecast How Humans and Climate Affect Wildlife

International research spanning Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, University of Cambridge, and the National Museums of Kenya seeks to understand how wildlife trait-environment relationships in East Africa have changed over time.

Grant and Award Announcement

GEORGIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Crawshays Zebra
IMAGE: CRAWSHAYS ZEBRA view more  CREDIT: GEORGIA TECH

Jenny McGuire plans to use the late Cenozoic fossil record in Africa — a span of 7.5 million years — to study the long-term relationships between animals, their traits, and how they respond to changes in their environments. The goal is to use the data to forecast future changes and help inform conservation biology decisions for the continent.

McGuire, an assistant professor with joint appointments in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech, and her Spatial Ecology & Paleontology Lab are teaming up with an international cohort of researchers for the effort, which includes scientists from Texas A&M University, University of Cambridge, and the National Museums of Kenya. The work is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (US NSF) and the National Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organizations, businesses, charities and government “to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish.”

McGuire says the team hopes to learn more about which functional traits vertebrates (animals with backbones) have that closely relate to shifting factors at a given location like temperature, rain and other precipitation, and their natural environment — and how those changes have occurred as environments and humans evolved.

“Community-level trait calculations correlate with specific environmental conditions,” McGuire says. “For example, in places or times when there is less precipitation, mammal communities overall will have more robust, rugged, resistant teeth. And the ankle gear ratios of mammals living in open versus more enclosed habitats reflect this condition, since animals living in more open habitats typically need to run faster.”

McGuire says Africa offers a crucial natural laboratory for these types of conservation paleobiological studies, noting a rich, well-sampled fossil record. The continent is also home to a diverse range of vertebrate ecosystems, including the most complete natural community of remaining terrestrial megafauna: large animals that include the “big five” of Africa — elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and large bovines like wildebeests, antelopes, and water buffaloes.

“Critically, these megafauna are facing increasing pressures from global economic demands leading to habitat loss, as well as from changing climates,” McGuire shares.

Michelle Lawing, an associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, is the lead institution principal investigator for the project, and McGuire is the collaborating institution’s principal investigator. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, co-principal investigator, is director of Antiquities, Sites, and Monuments and a senior research scientist in the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. Jason Head, NERC principal investigator, is a professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

Responding to changing climates and environments

Related research into how communities have evolved over time, and how they’ve been impacted by terrain, animal migration, and climate change, has taken McGuire to Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave for five of the past seven summers. There, the so-called “pit” or sinkhole cave trapped animals for millennia, leaving only their bones and other fossils remaining to tell their stories to McGuire and fellow researchers about life there more than 35,000 years ago.

“What we’re really looking at is how communities shift across the landscape,” McGuire shared in an earlier interview about the work. “So, if we have glaciers that are coming really far south in North America, how does that drive the distributions of species on the landscape and where they’re living, and whether or not there’s new communities or total remixing of communities, or if communities just shift in a uniform way?

“We’re really trying to understand how animals respond to changing climate and changing environments, so that we can get a better sense of how they’ll respond to increased warming and climate change that’s occurring today.”

Positive trait to environment relationships — and a negative one

When it comes to an example of a good trait-environment relationship involving animals, McGuire cites the role that elephants play in Africa — something mastodons also did in North America before their extinction.

“Elephants help maintain savanna habitats,” McGuire says, referring to the giants’ relationships with Africa’s grassland regions. “They control trees along the perimeters of forests, preventing them from expanding into, and taking over, savanna habitats.”

Similarly, in ancient North American ecosystems, the loss of the mammoth, along with climate change, is thought to have resulted in the loss of the mammoth steppe ecosystem, “a no-analog, widespread Arctic shrubland that went extinct as a biome (a community of plants and animals) around the time of North American megafauna extinction,” McGuire says.

The new project’s outreach efforts

The US NSF and UK NERC funding for the project also includes student outreach and mentoring for early career academics. The project’s broader impact goals include measures to support inclusivity and diversity in science, high-impact training experiences for students and postdoctoral researchers, application of the researcher’s modeling framework for applied conservation, and meaningful engagement with the public.

“This international collaborative project will also help train both Kenyan and American (and) European students, thus establishing another generation of researchers,” National Museums of Kenya’s Fredrick Kyalo Manthi says.

“We plan to pair travel and research objectives with workshops so that workshop students get to directly participate in research, and serve as co-authors on projects as appropriate,” McGuire adds.

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Funding: NSFDEB-NERC Award #2124770; NSF CAREER Award #1945013; International Union of Biological Sciences: Conservation Paleobiology in Africa Program.

***

From EurekAlert!

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glenn holdcroft
December 29, 2021 10:36 pm

Adaptation and evolution , humans have become convoluted rather than progressive , hope they learn something positive from the animal kingdom .

gringojay
December 29, 2021 11:42 pm

Participant travel workshops to Kenya I surmise. Grant writing is an art & the pay-off can be so sweet I know one adept fellow who got paid to write grants for others.

Chaswarnertoo
December 30, 2021 12:40 am

What a load of BS.

SxyxS
Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
December 30, 2021 3:20 am

I love this BS.
On the one hand they blame cow farts on climate change and now the perpetrator – victim roles are reversed.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
December 30, 2021 9:44 am

You expected something different “From YouReekAlot!”?

4 Eyes
December 30, 2021 1:02 am

So the climatologists have used their grants to generate a whole lot of work for those “downstream” of them who no doubt are some of the 97 percent who are convinced CAGW is real and caused by humans

Ron Long
December 30, 2021 1:38 am

This sounds like a conclusion searching for some cherry-picked data to prove the conclusion.

fretslider
December 30, 2021 2:45 am

“Critically, these megafauna are facing increasing pressures from global economic demands leading to habitat loss, as well as from changing climates”

According to WWF it’s the poachers…

H.R.
Reply to  fretslider
December 30, 2021 3:30 am

Yah, but… you can’t get a Forever Grant for that, fretslider.

Rich Davis
Reply to  H.R.
December 30, 2021 9:48 am

Sure you can, just phrase it as detecting the CO2 warming that drives indigenous people to resort to poaching.

H.R.
December 30, 2021 3:27 am

Jackpot!

Talk about your over-broad study of a 7.5 million year period that includes everything with a backbone! This is a ‘Forever Study’. It will never be finished and will require perpetual funding.

That said (congratulations to Jenny McGuire, BTW), a lot of interesting and useful stuff will turn up. In the short term, it will all be interpreted in light of CAGW and “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” because all these critters died, and humans are creating the same conditions that killed the critters… because CO2.

But so long as they are careful recording their findings, others will find some useful bits that will fill in the gaps about the past. Gotta take the good with the bad and sort it out later.

2hotel9
December 30, 2021 3:52 am

increased warming and climate change that’s occurring today ” So they have their conclusion, all they have to do is jiggery pokery the “data” and SHAZAM they once again prove humans are evil. And steal shyte buckets full of our tax dollars at the same time. Sweet!

ATheoK
December 30, 2021 4:20 am

A young researcher states grossly general assumptions as if they are known facts.

Assistant professor Jenny L McGuire:

Lab Affiliation:

Spatial Ecology & Paleontology Lab

Educational Experience:

PhD, Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley, BS, Earth & Ocean Sciences, Duke University, BS, Biological Anthropology & Anatomy, Duke University

Research Interests:

spatial ecology, biogeography, paleoecology, climate change, ecological modeling, conservation biology”

“climate change”?
Ecological modeling?
Conservation biology?
Integrative biology?
Spatial ecology?

Basically a researcher filled with gross assumptions, buzz words and assumed non-specifics, without the rigor of thorough science research or ability to recognize facts.
Culminating in a general self satisfaction model that supports her central Confirmation Bias.

The project’s broader impact goals include measures to support inclusivity and diversity in science, high-impact training experiences for students and postdoctoral researchers, application of the researcher’s modeling framework for applied conservation, and meaningful engagement with the public.”

H.R.
Reply to  ATheoK
December 30, 2021 6:00 am

Now that you’ve pointed it out, ATheoK, I’m surprised that Feminist Glaciology wasn’t included in the list of research interests.

Perhaps in the next round of funding, eh?

Ruleo
Reply to  H.R.
December 30, 2021 5:12 pm

Feminist Glaciology

Isn’t that just Frigid Coupling?

H. D. Hoese
Reply to  ATheoK
December 30, 2021 8:36 am

“So, if we are having glaciers that are coming this far south….”
Give them some credit, they know about cold. I have a degree (Fisheries) from the Wildlife Management Department at Texas A & M (lead PI), the original one before universities started competing by taking over others. It was mostly basics with the understanding that management required them. The stat course before modeling, among others, has proved to be very useful. The irony is that it would seem that with greatly increased specialization they are emphasizing the whole with “ecosystem based management” by putting the ‘special’ parts together. It is an interesting very expensive experiment, but are some at the minimum missing things in their own back yard.? Travel may be more fun, but with biofuel planes they will get back to local Spatial Sciences.

Mike Dubrasich
Reply to  ATheoK
December 30, 2021 9:25 am

“So, if we have glaciers that are coming really far south in North America, how does that drive the distributions of species on the landscape and where they’re living…”

If? When continental ice sheets 2 miles thick covered 1/3 of NA, the animals moved south or froze their begonias off. Duh.

And when it warmed up they moved back north.

Jenny is a jenny. Defund the Academic Complex.

Rich Davis
Reply to  ATheoK
December 30, 2021 9:55 am

Participation trophies all around with preference to those possessing ovaries and/or a prodigious production of melanin. (Because these characteristics matter far more than academic standards of course).

Tom
Reply to  ATheoK
December 30, 2021 6:07 pm

This reads to me like the resume of someone seriously looking for a government bailout of student loans. I don’t believe you’ll find many of these specialties on the list of ‘requireds’ for very many successful profitable companies.

Jules Guidry
December 30, 2021 5:57 am

The “science” grifters continuing to espouse flawed nonsense which serves little purpose, except to keep them from having to actually get a real job. Just look at the list of Jenny’s accomplishments for a clue as to how she will survive. Free money of one sort or another.
Lot of that connected to academia. Taxpayers need to put shut off the access to the funds for the nonsense research into these “nice to know”, but “not needed” projects.

TallDave
December 30, 2021 6:06 am

it is well-established that large fauna respond to humans by being eaten

but more research is always important — and delicious

Last edited 26 days ago by TallDave
Ruleo
Reply to  TallDave
December 30, 2021 5:13 pm

I envy those that have had mammoth steak.

Sara
December 30, 2021 6:13 am

“We’re really trying to understand how animals respond to changing climate and changing environments, so that we can get a better sense of how they’ll respond to increased warming and climate change that’s occurring today.” – article

OH, for Pete’s sake!!! If there’s a lack of rainfall, and fodder/grazing lands dry up, then grazing animals go elsewhere to find food. Nothing out in the desert for elephants to eat, so they go where there’s food and water. Predators follow the herds. Same things happened gazillions of years ago before Hoomans showed up and there are fossilized tracks here and there that show the “herd” movements.

If you live in Africa near an elephant’s grazing range and the water supply is short, they’ll come to your yard and drink the water out of your pool. There are videos online showing those events. I have ZERO doubt that their ancestors would have missed that opportunity, either. Mammoths in the frozen tundra of Siberia? Trapped in really nasty mud during a warmup, drowned in a flood of water on whatever rivers they were crpssomg, then the cold came back and iced them up and preserved them.

Maybe if these people put down their electronic equipment and did a bit of looking around, they’d be able to figure things out. A little common sense goes a long way. They seem to lack that quality.

Last edited 26 days ago by Sara
Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Sara
December 30, 2021 11:16 am

Surely you aren’t suggesting actual field observations to replace computer modeling! What kind of a radical are you?

Sara
Reply to  Clyde Spencer
December 30, 2021 11:46 am

Nah, Clyde, that would be too easy for them, wouldn’t it? Might confuse them, too.

Happy New Year, anyway!!!! Enjoy things to the fullest!

Fran
December 30, 2021 8:30 am

The research project I am waiting for is “Saving the Sahara from Greening due to CO2”,

Ruleo
Reply to  Fran
December 30, 2021 5:14 pm

Two years…

Paul S.
December 30, 2021 9:53 am

“The continent is also home to a diverse range of vertebrate ecosystems, including the most complete natural community of remaining terrestrial megafauna: large animals that include the “big five” of Africa — elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and large bovines like wildebeests, antelopes, and water buffaloes.”

The “Big Five” has always referred to the African animals that can kill humans, ie Lion, Leopard, Rhinos, Elephant and Cape buffalo. Water buffalo do not exist in Africa. They live in Asia and other areas where they have been introduced. Cape Buffalo live in Africa. They are not the same animal.

Paul S.
Reply to  Paul S.
December 30, 2021 9:55 am

Also, Wildebeests are not bovines, they are antelopes

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Paul S.
December 30, 2021 11:24 am

Interestingly, there were extinctions of African megafauna during the end-Pleistocene. It has been suggested that extant African megafauna survived by altering their behavior towards humans. I guess the one’s that did become extinct didn’t get the memo.

There was an exchange of animals between North and South America after Panama provided a land bridge between the two continents. The animals followed different extinction paths on the two continents.

Bruce Cobb
December 30, 2021 11:45 am

Jenny, you ignorant slut.

Al Miller
January 1, 2022 11:32 am

All said as though a deep understanding of the earth’s climate was real. What a bunch of hooey with unbelievable arrogance. Please make sure you explain all past climate changes before you pontificate on manmade CO2 and it;s trivial contribution.

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