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Academic & Professional Books  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

Mammalian Paleoecology Using the Past to Study the Present

By: Felisa A Smith(Author)
260 pages, 50 b/w photos, 90 b/w illustrations, tables
A fascinating book, Mammalian Paleoecology is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge before delivering satisfying payoffs at the end.
Mammalian Paleoecology
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  • Mammalian Paleoecology ISBN: 9781421441405 Hardback Nov 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £68.00
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About this book

What can the interactions of ancient mammals and their environments tell us about the present – and the future?

Classic palaeontology has focused on the study of fossils and the reconstruction of lineages of extinct species. But as diverse fossils of animals and plants were unearthed and catalogued, it became possible to reconstruct more elaborate ecosystems, tying together plants, animals, and geology. By the second half of the twentieth century, this effort gave birth to the field of palaeoecology: the study of the interactions between organisms and their environments across geologic timescales.

In Mammalian Paleoecology, Felisa Smith broadly considers extinct mammals in an ecological context. Arguing that the past has much to teach us, and that mammals, which display an impressive array of diverse life history and ecological characteristics, are the ideal organism through which to view the fossil record, Smith
- reviews the history, major fossil-hunting figures, and fundamental principles of palaeoecology, including stratigraphy, dating, and taphonomy
- discusses the importance of mammal body size, how to estimate size, and what size and shape reveal about long-dead organisms
- explains the structure, function, and utility of different types of mammal teeth
- highlights other important methods and proxies used in modern palaeoecology, including stable isotopes, ancient DNA, owl pellets, Sporormiella fungal spores, and palaeomidden analyses
- assesses nontraditional fossils
- presents readers with several case studies that describe how the fossil record can help inform the scientific discussion on anthropogenic climate change

Mammalian Paleoecology is an approachable overview of how we obtain information from long-dead animals and what this information can tell us about the environments of the distant past. It will profoundly affect the way palaeontologists and climatologists view the lives of ancient mammals.



1. Introduction

Part I: General Principles of Paleoecology
2. Old Bones, footprints and trace evidence of life
3. Taphonomy – putting the dead to work
4. Determining age and context

Part II: Characterizing the ecology of fossil organisms
5. On being the right size
6. Show me your teeth and I will tell you what you are
7. Stable isotopes and the reconstruction of mammalian movement, diet and trophic relationships
8. Non-traditional 'fossils'
9. Reconstructing past climate

Part III: Using paleoecology to understand the present
10. The past as prologue: the importance of a deeper temporal perspective in climate change research
11. Biodiversity on Earth


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A neatly crafted package
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Jan 2022 Written for Hardback

    Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading.

    Palaeoecology is a subdiscipline of palaeontology that studies the interactions between organisms and their environments across geologic timescales. Mammalian Paleoecology is divided into three parts: starting from fundamentals, Smith discusses how we obtain information from extinct mammals, before showing how this can be applied to current problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss. The overall read is very satisfying, each chapter logically following on the last and building towards some major payoffs at the end.

    The fundamentals section shows Smith has another ace up her sleeve: excellent writing that makes technical topics accessible. She introduces the fossil record, ponders its quality and completeness, and gives a brief overview of mammal evolution. More technical, and one of my favourite aspects of palaeontology, is taphonomy: the study of how organisms become fossils. I learned more about its basics from this chapter than I did from the recent and rather eclectic Fossilization. Topics covered include the pre- and post-burial processes (biostratinomy and diagenesis, respectively), the biases that determine what is and is not preserved, and the work of one of its pioneers, Kay Behrensmeyer. Similarly insightful was the chapter on dating, covering both relative techniques, such as stratigraphy and index fossils, and absolute techniques, such as radiometric and amino acid dating.

    With these basics in the bag, Smith then dives into the interesting part: how can we use fossils to learn about the ecology of extinct mammals? The focus is on five topics. Size influences biological processes and their rates, such as metabolism, and there are some interesting interactions between environment and body size. Teeth make up much of the fossil record and e.g. dental microwear and isotope analyses can reveal diet, while high-crowned teeth tell something about past plant communities. Stable isotopes come in various flavours and Smith discusses four examples and their applications. For instance, carbon isotopes can reveal past diets, while oxygen isotopes are useful for reconstructing past climate. Trace fossils can reveal past behaviour and Smith discusses unusual examples. The spores of Sporormiella fungi growing on animal dung are widespread and can help reconstruct past ecosystems. Smith's speciality – I absolutely loved this bit – are palaeomiddens, refuse heaps constructed by generations of packrats that contain plant and animal fragments encased in masses of crystallized urine. Trace fossils can also be potential sources of ancient DNA. Finally, there are various palaeoclimatological proxies such as tree rings, ice cores, and others that we can use to reconstruct past climates.

    The last two chapters are the big payoff. Here, Smith takes everything covered so far and shows that we can apply this knowledge to current concerns regarding climate change and biodiversity loss. More specifically – and this is one take-home message from this book – palaeoecology can combat shifting baseline syndrome. It "helps define the range of "normal" variation of ecosystems and set baselines against which changes in species composition, abundance, and richness in modern ecosystems can be compared" (p. 216).

    The climate has always changed, but now we can start answering how mammals responded to this, whether via extinction, migration, or adaptation. Particularly interesting is how this helps answer a long-standing question in ecology: do communities respond in unison as a superorganism, as once argued by Frederic Clements, or are they assemblages of individualistic species, as once argued by Henry Allen Gleason? The analysis of large datasets on home ranges through deep time shows assemblages disassociating in response to climatic changes. Many past communities have no modern analogue. And how much of observed past adaptation was genetics versus phenotypic plasticity?

    Similarly, extinction has always happened, but there is widespread concern that we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction. Palaeontology holds the answers and Smith explains why she reaches a conclusion I have encountered elsewhere: "while we are not quite at the level of a sixth mass extinction, we are firmly on the trajectory toward it" (p. 192). Recent extinctions are undeniably due to us, yet the cause of Pleistocene megafauna extinctions has been hotly debated, with hunting and climate change the main contenders. Though both play a role, Smith explains why the consensus leans towards humans. Her analyses on changes in average mammal body size over deep time show a clear decrease over the last 120,000 years that closely tracks human migration around the globe. Taking a step back, she observes that "being large-bodied or an herbivore did not increase extinction risk for most of mammal evolutionary history. The size and trophic bias to extinction were only present when hominins were" (p. 199). To her surprise, other analyses even suggest that temperature changes over the last 66 million years never enhanced extinction rates. Finally, she discusses how fossil data can reveal not just the cause of extinction but also the ecological consequences.

    Though the revelations come thick and fast in the last two chapters, Smith's writing is incredibly accessible. I particularly appreciated her explanations of how certain technologies work, e.g. what the idea is behind mass spectrometry. How what sounds easy on paper, can be laborious in practice. And how there are important caveats and limitations to keep in mind, whether working with Sporormiella spores or ancient DNA. This is all helped along by a generous serving of illustrations of not just results, but also principles behind certain analyses. The only complaint I have is that they are all printed in greyscale while some were clearly designed with colour in mind. Since there is no colour plate section, some complex plots are hard to interpret.

    Obviously, Mammalian Paleoecology comes highly recommended to readers interested in evolutionary biology and palaeontology. But even if the term palaeoecology means little to you, you are in safe hands with this book. It is an absolutely fascinating text that benefits from some fantastic writing, decades worth of Smith's own experience, and an excellent structure that logically threads chapters together.
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Felisa A. Smith (Santa Fe, NM) is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of New Mexico. She is the coeditor of Animal Body Size: Linking Pattern and Process across Space, Time, and Taxonomic Group and Foundations of Macroecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries.

By: Felisa A Smith(Author)
260 pages, 50 b/w photos, 90 b/w illustrations, tables
A fascinating book, Mammalian Paleoecology is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge before delivering satisfying payoffs at the end.
Media reviews

"This lucid book argues that studying past communities is essential for understanding how different today's are – and increasingly so. Smith presents the necessary interpretive scientific background, shows how the present differs from even the recent past, and reveals why those changes are so important not only for animals and plants, but for us too."
– David R. Pilbeam, Harvard University, coeditor of Chimpanzees and Human Evolution

"This engaging, timely synthesis employs a paleoecologic perspective, mammalian ecosystems of the past, to interpret the present and predict the future. The book is chock full of examples, as Smith draws on more than three decades of field experience in the American Southwest to teach valuable lessons about species diversity, body size, diet, and environmental challenges."
– Annalisa Berta, San Diego State University, co-author of Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology

"A lucid introduction to the paleoecology of mammals, drawing on their late Quaternary fossil record from North America. It introduces paleobiologists to ecology while providing a wealth of information concerning fossils for ecologists. Late Quaternary mammals provide critical case studies for assessing the impact of changing climates on species today."
– Hans-Dieter Sues, National Museum of Natural History

"A tour de force. One of the world's most eminent evolutionary biologists, Felisa Smith synthesizes paleontology and ecology to tell the story of mammal evolution and put today's environmental crisis into the perspective of Earth history. Both readable and authoritative, this book is invaluable for anyone looking to understand how real organisms respond to real moments of environmental change."
– Steve Brusatte, University of Edinburgh, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

"This book illustrates the importance of insights from the fossil record for understanding the scope of human disruptions to continental ecosystems over many stages of human history. Throughout, Smith highlights the contributions of women to developing empirical and analytical approaches to paleoecology. A valuable resource for paleontologists, anthropologists, and environmental scientists."
– Catherine Badgley, University of Michigan

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