Mammalian dwarfing during ancient greenhouse warming events.

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (Image: University of New Hampshire, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences)

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, known as PETM (approximately 55.8 million years ago), was a short-lived (~ 200,000 years) global warming event due to a rapid rise in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It was suggested that this warming was initiated by the melting of methane hydrates on the seafloor and permafrost at high latitudes. This event was accompanied by other large-scale changes in the climate system, for example, the patterns of atmospheric circulation, vapor transport, precipitation, intermediate and deep-sea circulation, a rise in global sea level and ocean acidification.

The second largest hyperthermal of the early Eocene, known as ETM2, occurred about 2 million years after the PETM (approximately 53.7 Ma). Another smaller-amplitude hyperthermal, identified as “H2,” appears in the marine record about 100,000 years after ETM2 (approximately 53.6 Ma).

Sifrhippus sp. restoration in the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm, Sweden (From Wikimedia Commons)

Dwarfing of mammalian taxa across the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was first described in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. The basin has a remarkably fossil-rich sedimentary record of late Palaeocene to early Eocene age. The interval of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum is represented by a unique mammalian fauna composed by smaller, but morphologically similar species to those found later in the Eocene. Diminutive species include the early equid Sifrhippus sandrae, the phenacodontids Ectocion parvus and Copecion davisi. 

Fossils of early equids are common in lower Eocene deposits of the Bighorn Basin, making a comparison between the PETM and ETM2 hyperthermal events possible. Using tooth size as a proxy for body size, researchers found a statistically significant decrease in the body size of mammals’ during the PETM and ETM2. Teeth in adult mammals scale proportionally to body size. For instance, Sifrhippus demonstrated a decrease of at least 30% in body size during the first 130,000 years of the PETM, followed by a 76% rebound in body size during the recovery phase of the PETM. Arenahippus, an early horse the size of a small dog, decreased by about 14 percent in size during the ETM2. (D’Ambrosia et al., 2017)

Arenahippus jaw fragment (Image credit: University of New Hampshire)

Body size change during periods of climate change is commonly seen throughout historical and geological records. Studies of modern animal populations have also yielded similar body size results. Tropical trees, anurans and mammals have all demonstrated decreased size or growth rate during drought years. In the case of mammals, the observed decrease in the average body size could have been an evolutionary response to create a more efficient way to reduce body heat.

The combination of global warming and the release of large amounts of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system during the PETM has encouraged analogies with the modern anthropogenic climate change, which has already led to significant shifts in the distribution, phenology and behaviour of organisms. Plus, the consequences of shrinkage are not yet fully understood. This underlines the urgency for immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.




Abigail R. D’Ambrosia, William C. Clyde, Henry C. Fricke, Philip D. Gingerich, Hemmo A. Abels. Repetitive mammalian dwarfing during ancient greenhouse warming events. Science Advances, 2017; 3 (3): e1601430 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601430

Rankin, B., Fox, J., Barron-Ortiz, C., Chew, A., Holroyd, P., Ludtke, J., Yang, X., Theodor, J. 2015. The extended Price equation quantifies species selection on mammalian body size across the Palaeocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2015.1097

Burger, B.J., Northward range extension of a diminutive-sized mammal (Ectocion parvus) and the implication of body size change during the Paleoc…, Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. (2012),