The new finding suggests that a similar outcome is possible in response to human-caused climate change, according to a University of Michigan paleontologist and his colleagues.
Researchers have known for years that mammals such as primates and the groups that include horses and deer became much smaller during a period of warming, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), about 55 million years ago.
Now U-M paleontologist Philip Gingerich and his colleagues have found evidence that mammalian "dwarfing" also occurred during a separate, smaller global warming event that occurred about 2 million years after the PETM, around 53 million years ago.
"The fact that it happened twice significantly increases our confidence that we're seeing cause and effect, that one interesting response to global warming in the past was a substantial decrease in body size in mammalian species," Gingerich, a professor of earth and environmental sciences, said.
The research team also includes scientists from the University of New Hampshire, Colorado College and the California Institute of Technology.
They concluded that decreased body size "seems to be a common evolutionary response" by mammals to extreme global warming events, known as hyperthermals, "and thus may be a predictable natural response for some lineages to future global warming."
The PETM lasted about 160,000 years, and global temperatures rose an estimated 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit at its peak.
The smaller, later event analyzed in the latest study, known as ETM2 (Eocene Thermal Maximum 2), lasted 80,000 to 100,000 years and resulted in a peak temperature increase of about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.