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Larisa  DeSantis - Vanderbilt University. Nashville, TN, US

Larisa DeSantis

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences | Vanderbilt University


Studies mammal teeth and bones to determine how they responded to ancient climate change and reasons why they went extinct.





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Intense look at La Brea Tar Pits explains why we have coyotes, not saber-toothed cats Wear on koala teeth indicates what they ate, not the dirt on it A  life-changing meeting with then Pres. George H. W. Bush Our Ancient Past is the Key to Our Future | Dr. Larisa R.G. DeSantis | TEDxVanderbiltUniversity



DeSantis is a vertebrate paleontologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University. She earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (B.S.), Yale University (M.E.M.), and the University of Florida (Ph.D.). By studying mammal teeth and bones, she determines how they responded to ancient climate change, potential reasons why they went extinct, and the long-term consequences of both climate change and large animal extinctions on a diversity of plants and animals—including saber-tooth cats, killer wombats, and Tasmanian wolves.

DeSantis is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award which is the most prestigious award in support of “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” When DeSantis is not in the laboratory, field, or classroom, she is involved in scientific and public outreach in her local community and as the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Distinguished Lecturer for North America. She enjoys engaging in science outreach as part of her courses and in conjunction with local science and/or historical centers, schools, movie theaters, and even breweries, and hopes to help change the face of science via these outreach events and other mentoring activities.

DeSantis has published more than 50 papers and book chapters, and her work has been featured on National Geographic Wild, the Discovery Channel, numerous radio shows, and has received global news coverage. DeSantis dreams big to answer questions of broad relevance to society. It is therefore no coincidence that her research lab is also named the DeSantis DREAM Lab—which stands for Dietary Reconstructions and Ecological Assessments of Mammals.

Areas of Expertise (8)

saber-tooth cats


Ancient Australian Animals

Ancient Climate Change


Ancient Animals

Vertebrate Paleontology


Education (3)

University of Florida: Ph.D. 2009

Yale University: M.E.M. 2003

University of California: B.S. 2000

Selected Media Appearances (9)

Polar bears are inbreeding because climate change is rapidly melting their habitat - sparking fears that their offspring could become infertile

Daily Mail  online


Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis told DailyMail.com that polar bears are retreating inland to find food, since sea ice is melting, and are mating with grizzly bears that travel up to Alaska.

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Saber-toothed cats stalked and ate baby mammoths

CNN  online


"Essentially you are what you eat," study coauthor and paleontologist Larisa DeSantis, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, told CNN. "In the case of carnivores, we can tell if they were eating things that ate Carbon-4 (warm season) grasses or were they eating things that ate Carbon-3 (cool season) shrubs."

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Baby Mammoths Were Meals for These Saber-Tooth Cats

New York Times  online


“Everything that we looked at basically told us that Smilodon and Homotherium are totally different cats,” said Larisa DeSantis, the paper’s lead author and a paleontologist at Vanderbilt University. She adds that although they were more closely related to each other than to any cat species living today, “They were able to coexist in these ecosystems likely due to having very different dietary niches.”

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Meet the 'pizzly bear': Critically endangered polar bears are mating with grizzly bears in Alaska and creating a hybrid animal that is more resilient to climate change

Daily Mail  online


Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis told DailyMail.com that polar bears are retreating inland to find food, since sea ice is melting, and are mating with grizzly bears that travel up to Alaska.

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The Real Dire Wolf Ran Into an Evolutionary Dead End

New York Times  online


Larisa DeSantis, a paleontologist at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the research, said it “is consistent with the idea of a North American origin of dire wolves.”

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The Dire Wolf Might Have Prowled Asia, Fossil Suggests

New York Times  online


It would be “exceptionally interesting” if dire wolves really had migrated into Asia, said Larisa R. G. DeSantis, a vertebrate paleontologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who was not involved in the research. But this is just one specimen, she cautioned, and it is notoriously difficult to differentiate species of canines based on the shapes of their bones and teeth alone.

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Fossils in La Brea Tar Pits reveal why coyotes still exist, but not saber-toothed cats

CNN  online


Vanderbilt University paleontologist Larisa DeSantis grew up visiting the fossil site in Hancock Park. Over the last decade, DeSantis used a dentistry approach to study the teeth of now-extinct predators like saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and American lions. She applied the same approach to the teeth recovered from the pits that belonged to ancient ancestors of gray wolves, coyotes and cougars.

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Hyenas Once Stalked The Arctic, Fossils Reveal

National Geographic  online


Researchers have long assumed hyenas must have passed into North America via the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, when sea levels were lower, but this is the first hard evidence that hyenas could survive well enough in Arctic environments to make that journey. “It’s really fun and exciting to see that hyenas were in fact in the Arctic and that they did take this migration route,” says Larisa DeSantis, an expert on fossil carnivores at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research. “It confirms what people had long thought … that these hyenas had come through Beringia and the land bridge to make it into more southern regions of North America.”

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Earth facing ‘global warming Armageddon’ in less than 150 years

New York Post  


Larisa DeSantis, a paleontologist at Vanderbilt University, who was also not involved in the study, said it will take thousands of years for the climate system to cool down. “It is not just about 100 years from now; it’s going to take significant periods of time for that carbon dioxide to make its way back into the Earth’s crust,” she said.

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Selected Articles (3)

A year in the life of a giant ground sloth during the Last Glacial Maximum in Belize

Science Advances

Jean T Larmon, H Gregory McDonald, Stanley Ambrose, Larisa RG DeSantis, Lisa J Lucero

2019 Stable isotope analysis of the first fossilized Eremotherium laurillardi remains from Belize offers valuable insights into the conditions within which this individual lived and its ability to adapt to the increasing aridity of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Cathodoluminescence (CL) microscopy was used to identify chemical alteration of the tooth during fossilization.

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Dental microwear textures across cheek teeth in canids: Implications for dietary studies of extant and extinct canids

Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

Brian P Tanis, Larisa RG DeSantis, Rebecca C Terry

2018 Dental microwear texture analysis (DMTA) has been instrumental in reconstructing dietary ecology of extinct and extant carnivorans. Current sampling methods for canids focus on lower second molars (m2), where the grinding of flesh and bone captures dental microwear indicative of diet.

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The phylogenetic signal in tooth wear: What does it mean?

Ecology and Evolution

Larisa DeSantis, Mikael Fortelius, Frederick E Grine, Christine Janis, Thomas M Kaiser, Gildas Merceron, Mark A Purnell, Ellen Schulz‐Kornas, Juha Saarinen, Mark Teaford, Peter S Ungar, Indrė Žliobaitė

2018 A new study by Fraser et al (2018) urges the use of phylogenetic comparative methods, whenever possible, in analyses of mammalian tooth wear. We are concerned about this for two reasons. First, this recommendation may mislead the research community into thinking that phylogenetic signal is an artifact of some sort rather than a fundamental outcome of the evolutionary process.

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