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Of mice and mammoths: evaluations of causal explanations for body size evolution in insular mammals

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Aim  We investigated the hypothesis that the insular body size of mammals results from selective forces whose influence varies with characteristics of the focal islands and the focal species, and with interactions among species (ecological displacement and release).

Location  Islands world‐wide.

Methods  We assembled data on the geographic characteristics (area, isolation, maximum elevation, latitude) and climate (annual averages and seasonality of temperature and precipitation) of islands, and on the ecological and morphological characteristics of focal species (number of mammalian competitors and predators, diet, body size of mainland reference populations) that were most relevant to our hypothesis (385 insular populations from 98 species of extant, non‐volant mammals across 248 islands). We used regression tree analyses to examine the hypothesized contextual importance of these factors in explaining variation in the insular body size of mammals.

Results  The results of regression tree analyses were consistent with predictions based on hypotheses of ecological release (more pronounced changes in body size on islands lacking mammalian competitors or predators), immigrant selection (more pronounced gigantism in small species inhabiting more isolated islands), thermoregulation and endurance during periods of climatic or environmental stress (more pronounced gigantism of small mammals on islands of higher latitudes or on those with colder and more seasonal climates), and resource subsidies (larger body size for mammals that utilize aquatic prey). The results, however, were not consistent with a prediction based on resource limitation and island area; that is, the insular body size of large mammals was not positively correlated with island area.

Main conclusions  These results support the hypothesis that the body size evolution of insular mammals is influenced by a combination of selective forces whose relative importance and nature of influence are contextual. While there may exist a theoretical optimal body size for mammals in general, the optimum for a particular insular population varies in a predictable manner with characteristics of the islands and the species, and with interactions among species. This study did, however, produce some unanticipated results that merit further study – patterns associated with Bergmann’s rule are amplified on islands, and the body size of small mammals appears to peak at intermediate and not maximum values of latitude and island isolation.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: College of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York, Syracuse, NY 13210, USA 2: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA 3: Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Universit√† di Roma ‘La Sapienza’ and CNR, Istituto di Geologia ambientale e Geoingegneria, P. le Aldo Moro, 5, 00185 Rome, Italy 4: Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, Postbus 9517, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands

Publication date: May 1, 2012


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