Rethinking megafauna

2020-03-09 An international and multidisciplinary team of researchers, including Leuphana University Lüneburg, reaches consensus on how to use the term ‘megafauna’, which could help catalyse cooperation between scientists, and conservation of large animals.

Megafauna has fascinated humans since our origins, when the large animals on which we fed, which competed with us and killed us were depicted in cave paintings. Today, we also know that megafauna play key and irreplaceable roles in ecosystems. But, what precisely are ‘megafauna’?

An international team of researchers, among others from Leuphana University Lüneburg, has revealed that definitions of megafauna in scientific literature include disparate combinations of species: from the smallest organisms readily visible in photographs to the largest vertebrates ever to exist on Earth. Moreover, authors of literature on megafauna rarely define the term before they use it.

As Marcos Moleón, first author of this review, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Granada in Spain, explains ‘for a marine biologist concerned with seabed, for instance, megafauna can be a crab or a sea slug; for a soil researcher, megafauna could be an earthworm; for a paleontologist, megafauna refers to vertebrates similar or superior in weight to humans; and for some terrestrial ecologists, only herbivores exceeding a ton in weight should be labeled megafauna’. Prof. Martín-López, from Leuphana University, concludes that ‘these differences indicate that research on megafauna has evolved within each discipline, without any real dialogue between them and without interdisciplinary approaches”.

In this research, the authors suggest that size alone is insufficient to adequately describe megafauna, and propose some new definitions that also take into account the ecological function and characteristics of species. ‘We should foster interdisciplinary approaches that rely on cooperation between researchers from different disciplines in order to be able to halt and reverse the loss of megafauna and to improve conservation policies’ suggests Prof. Martín-López.

This review, which is the result of the joint and synergistic effort of terrestrial, marine and freshwater megafauna experts from research institutions of all continents, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and is highlighted on the cover of the March issue.


Moleón et al. Rethinking megafauna. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B. Volume 287, Issue 1922. March 2020. Pages 20192643. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2019.2643

Faculty of Sustainability