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Larisa  DeSantis - Vanderbilt University. Nashville, TN, US

Larisa DeSantis Larisa  DeSantis

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



DeSantis is a vertebrate paleontologist in the Department of Earth and Environmental 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 (6)

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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Giant pandas may have only recently switched to eating mostly bamboo

Science News  online


“Proxies like isotopes are actually able to capture what an animal is doing during its lifetime,” says vertebrate paleontologist Larisa DeSantis at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who was not involved in the study.

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Climate Change Played Major Role in Demise of Marsupial Lion

Sci News  online


This is supported by features of the skeleton that indicate it was an ambush hunter, relying on catching its prey unaware rather than running them down across an open landscape. “The new data provide evidence that the marsupial lion was an ambush predator and relied on prey that occupied denser cover,” Dr. DeSantis said.

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Cougars' diverse diet helped them survive the Pleistocene mass extinction

PHYS ORG  online


"Before the Late Pleistocene extinction six species of large cats roamed the plains and forests of North America. Only two – the cougar and jaguar – survived. The goal of our study was to examine the possibility that dietary factors can explain the cougar's survival," said Larisa R.G. DeSantis, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, who co-authored the study with Ryan Haupt at the University of Wyoming.

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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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