What African Wildlife Looked Like 1000 Years Ago

First Posted: Dec 07, 2015 09:15 AM EST

What did African wildlife look like 1,000 years ago? That's exactly what scientists are finding out in a bid to better understand how they have shaped the world we live in.

"Animals matter and ecologists across the world are starting to realize that many ecosystems cannot be understood without including animals and their impact into their thinking," said Gareth Hempson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The problem is that in most places, natural wildlife populations are extinct. The challenge that we took up was to try and bring them back."

The researchers mostly focused on large mammal herbivores, such as the antelope, zebra, elephants, rhino and pigs. These mammals form an integral level in the food period by consuming vegetation and being consumed by large carnivores.

The researchers used wildlife census data from as many protected areas as possible and then analyzed how factors like rainfall and soil fertility influenced the abundance of different species. Using this information, they were able to predict how many animals of each species were in all the places that are now transformed.

So what did they find? Dry areas were packed with a kaleidoscope of African wildlife. Wetter savannas were dominated by elephants and fire.

The findings provide a platform for fitting animals into global ecosystem models that are used to predict where planet Earth is heading in the future. It also allows scientists to look outside Africa and compare the ecology with another place that lost its large animals thousands of years ago.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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