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Nashville paleontologist looks at koalas, kangaroos to learn about climate change

Posted: 8:28 AM, Sep 03, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-04 13:53:16Z

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Can koalas and kangaroos help scientists learn about climate change?

Vanderbilt University paleontologist, Larisa Desantis, has spent years looking at teeth.

"Ultimately what we’re really interested in learning is how plants and animals are responding to current climate change," she said. 

She examines the teeth of koalas and kangaroos to see how these ancient Australian animals survived as their world changed.

"So even though we’re North America, Australia is one of the best places that we can study responses to climate change and that’s because it’s undergoing tremendous aridification, or the drying out of the continent," Desantis said. 

By looking at the teeth, she can tell what the animals were eating. As it turns out, diet is the "primary signal," a warning of things to come. 

Desantis says her work isn't just about Australia or animals, as other continents are drying out, as well. 

"We can see how animals in the past have responded to these changes. Are animals with really specialized diets more likely to go extinct? Are things that have a broader range of diet more adaptable? Are things that are eating particular types of resources more likely to die out," she said.