Shifting baseline in macroecology? Unravelling the influence of human impact on mammalian body mass

Luca Santini, Manuela González-Suárez, Carlo Rondinini and Moreno Di Marco

Human activities have led to hundreds of species extinctions and have narrowed the distribution of many of the remaining species. These changes influence our understanding of global macroecological patterns, but their effects have been rarely explored. One of these patterns, the Bergmann’s rule, has been largely investigated in macroecology, but often under the assumption that observed patterns reflect “natural” processes. We assessed the extent to which humans have re-shaped the observable patterns of body mass distribution in terrestrial mammals, and how this has altered the macroecological baseline.

Median mammalian body size in 1×1 degree cells around the world.

Using a comprehensive set of ecological, climatic and anthropogenic variables, we tested several alternative hypotheses to explain the body mass pattern observed in terrestrial mammals’ assemblages at a one-degree resolution. We then explored how model predictions and the Bergmann’s latitudinal pattern are affected by the inclusion of human impact variables and identified areas where predicted body mass differs from the expected due to human impact.

Our model suggests that median and maximum body mass predicted in grid cells would be higher, and skewness in local mass distributions reduced, if human impacts were minimal, especially in areas that are highly accessible to humans and where natural land cover has been converted for human activities.

Predicted changes in mammalian body sizes globally. Left panel is change in median and right panel change in maximum values.

Our study provides evidence of the pervasive effects of anthropogenic impact on nature and shows human-induced distortion of global macroecological patterns. This extends the notion of “shifting baseline”, suggesting that when the first macroecological investigations started, our understanding of global geographic patterns was based on a situation which was already compromised. While in the short term human impact is causing species decline and extinction, in the long term, it is causing a broad re-shaping of animal communities with yet unpredicted ecological implications.

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