Solving the mystery of Megatherium diet.

Megatherium americanum, MACN.

Around 10,000 years ago, Argentina was home of numerous species of giant Xenarthrans, giant ground sloths (relative to tree sloth) and glyptodontids (relative to tiny extant armadillo). Sloths, characteristic of the mammal fauna of the Pleistocene of South America, show a great diversity with more than 80 genera, grouped in four families: Megatheriidae, Megalonychidae, Nothrotheriidae and Mylodontidae.

For more than a century different hypotheses on the dietary preferences of giant ground sloths have been proposed. In 1860, Owen gave an extensive explanations about their possible diet and behavior. He based his conclusions on the morphology of the skull, combined with peculiarities of the rest of the skeleton, but always by analogy with living tree sloth. He wrote: “Guided by the general rule that animals having the same kind of dentition have the same kind of food, I conclude that the Megatherium must have subsisted, like the Sloths, on the foliage of tree…”. In 1926, Angel Cabrera discussed the diet of Megatherium, rejecting some theories on myrmecophagy or insectivory, and agreed with Owen’s statements about a folivorous diet.

Megatherium americanum lower right tooth series. Scale bar: 5 cm (From M.S. Bargo and S.F. Vizcaíno, 2008)

The dietary preferences of extinct mammals can usually be evaluated through their tooth morphology, but the application of stable isotopes on fossil bones has yielded very important information to solve debates about the diet of extinct large mammal groups, by comparing the carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of their bone collagen with those of coeval herbivorous and carnivorous taxa. Another isotopic approach is to mesure the difference between the carbon isotopic abundances of the collagen and the carbonate fractions of skeletal tissues. An animal with a herbivorous diet, exhibits significantly larger differences than a carnivore. The values measured on bone collagen from Megatherium, clearly fall in the same range as the large herbivores such as the equid Hippidion, the notoungulate Toxodon and the liptoptern Macrauchenia, for which there is no doubt about their herbivorous diet. Therefore, the hypotheses of insectivory or carnivory for these extinct mammals are not supported by the isotopic data.

 

References:

Hervé Bocherens et al. Isotopic insight on paleodiet of extinct Pleistocene megafaunal Xenarthrans from Argentina, Gondwana Research (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.gr.2017.04.003

Bargo, M.S., Vizcaíno, S.F., 2008. Paleobiology of Pleistocene ground sloths (Xenarthra, Tardigrada): biomechanics, morphogeometry and ecomorphology applied to the masticatory apparatus. Ameghiniana 45: 175-196

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