Image of Larisa DeSantis

Larisa DeSantis

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences

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


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.

Media Appearances

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

    Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis told 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.

    September 9th, 2021

  • Saber-toothed cats stalked and ate baby mammoths

    "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."

    April 28th, 2021

  • Baby Mammoths Were Meals for These Saber-Tooth Cats

    “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.”

    April 27th, 2021

  • 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

    Paleontologist Larisa DeSantis told 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.

    April 13th, 2021

  • The Real Dire Wolf Ran Into an Evolutionary Dead End

    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.”

    January 13th, 2021

  • The Dire Wolf Might Have Prowled Asia, Fossil Suggests

    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.

    October 15th, 2020

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

    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.

    August 5th, 2019

  • Hyenas Once Stalked The Arctic, Fossils Reveal

    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.”

    June 23rd, 2019

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

    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.

    February 21st, 2019


Ph.D., University of Florida

M.E.M., Yale University

B.S., University of California


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