Dietary response of early Pleistocene ungulate communities to the climate oscillations of the Gelasian/Calabrian transition in Central Italy
Climatic oscillations at the Gelasian/Calabrian transition modified terrestrial palaeoenvironmental settings in the European region. A gradual drop in global temperatures beginning about 2.7 Ma led to drier conditions and to a reduction in, and subsequent disappearance of, sub-tropical vegetation in the central Mediterranean area by ca 1.2 Ma. Large ungulates are sensitive to vegetation changes and faced with harsher environmental settings may shift their feeding strategies to exploit available food resources in different ecosystems. In fossil assemblages such dietary adaptations are reflected by tooth morphology (a phylogenetic signal) and tooth wear degree (a direct signal of the species’ diet). In this paper, we investigate how large herbivores responded to palaeoenvironmental changes that occurred at the passage between the Gelasian and Calabrian ages in the Italian Peninsula, analysing the dental wear patterns and hypsodonty of the early Pleistocene fossil ungulates assemblage of Olivola (Aulla, Central Italy). We found that while ungulate feeding behaviours during the Calabrian spanned from browsers to grazers, in the Gelasian locality of Olivola this group of herbivores display a narrower range of diet types with many taxa adopting a mixed feeding behaviour. Cervids in particular, whose fossils are often associated only with wooded environments, as a response to the reduction of covered sub-tropical vegetation, shifted from a strict browsing diet in mostly closed habitats to a more abrasive one taking advantage of the spread of open landscapes. We also provide new data on the feeding behaviour of the rare fossil caprines, Procamptoceras and Gallogoral meneghinii, suggesting a grass-rich mixed diet for the former and a certain degree of dietary plasticity for the latter. Our research thus contributes to the better understanding of how ungulates adapted in the past to exploit different resource types during pivotal climatic changes and how environments changed in Central Italy on the onset of colder and more arid conditions.