Anthropogenic disruptions to longstanding patterns of trophic-size structure in vertebrates

Rob Cooke, William Gearty, Abbie S.A. Chapman, Jillian Dunic, Graham J. Edgar, Jonathan S. Lefcheck, Gil Rilov, Craig R. McClain, Rick D. Stuart-Smith, S. Kathleen Lyons, Amanda E. Bates

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Diet and body mass are inextricably linked in vertebrates: while herbivores and carnivores have converged on much larger sizes, invertivores and omnivores are, on average, much smaller, leading to a roughly U-shaped relationship between body size and trophic guild. Although this U-shaped trophic-size structure is well documented in extant terrestrial mammals, whether this pattern manifests across diverse vertebrate clades and biomes is unknown. Moreover, emergence of the U-shape over geological time and future persistence are unknown. Here we compiled a comprehensive dataset of diet and body size spanning several vertebrate classes and show that the U-shaped pattern is taxonomically and biogeographically universal in modern vertebrate groups, except for marine mammals and seabirds. We further found that, for terrestrial mammals, this U-shape emerged by the Palaeocene and has thus persisted for at least 66 million years. Yet disruption of this fundamental trophic-size structure in mammals appears likely in the next century, based on projected extinctions. Actions to prevent declines in the largest animals will sustain the functioning of Earth’s wild ecosystems and biomass energy distributions that have persisted through deep time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)684-692
Number of pages9
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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