The study featured on the cover of the November issue of Ecology shows animal bone remains provide high-quality geographical data across an extensive time frame. The research may be used to identify regions of habitat for the conservation of threatened species.
Charles Darwin first noted the importance of studying where animal bones lie on the landscape in 1860, but the topic has since become largely lost to scientists trying to protect and conserve native wildlife. By documenting accumulations of elk bones and antlers on the landscape of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, study author Joshua Miller identified areas critical for the species’ survival during spring and winter.
“This is fundamental stuff, because for a long time the common knowledge was that bones only lasted a few years on the landscape,” said Miller, an assistant scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus and Fenneman assistant research professor at the University of Cincinnati. “It turns out they last a lot longer and surveys of bones on landscapes offer a new tool for conservation and management – one that allows us to collect decades of biological data in a single field season.”
Walking across Yellowstone Park, Miller documented elk skeletal remains and determined the bones record the same seasonal distributions as aerial surveys of living elk.
Ecologists typically gather information for conservation by monitoring wild animals, a task requiring years of financial support and countless hours of observation by wildlife biologists. A long-term study in ecology consists of at least 10 to 20 years of census data. However, because some bones can survive on some landscapes for hundreds of years, they may include data from time periods beyond the reaches of a traditional ecological study, including historical insight often missing from scientists’ knowledge of ecosystems, Miller said.
“A major challenge for wildlife conservation and management has been that biologists can only work in the present – researchers can only start from when they began collecting data,” Miller said. “If someone wants to develop a piece of land, for example, there may only be time for a few years of data collection, and we know as ecologists that such limited observations aren’t enough to capture the full complexities of an ecosystem. This research shows we can go into the past, essentially using bones to travel through time and learn about generations of wildlife that were previously lost to science.”
A popular hunting species, male elk grow to 700 pounds, shedding their more than 30-pound antlers annually. Miller used standardized bone surveys on 40 five-eighth-mile-long plots in the northern range of Yellowstone Park to identify wintering grounds by antler accumulations and calving grounds by the appearance of newborn skeletons.
“Bones are not randomly scattered across a landscape,” Miller said. “Where a bone is found is often as biologically informative as which species it’s from. As we investigate the quality of these geographic data, we’re discovering that this is a gold mine of information.”
Although the study represents a narrow test case, the strong correlation between how bones are distributed across Yellowstone Park and known patterns in how elk use the landscape shows this low-impact survey technique may be useful for understanding other areas, including poorly known or fragile ecosystems, Miller said.
Anna Behrensmeyer, vertebrate paleontology curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, uses bone surveys in East Africa for understanding the area’s mammal populations and how bones become part of the fossil record. She said the study of taphonomy, the processes affecting organic remains as they become fossilized, is not commonly recognized in the field of ecology.
“In my long-term studies of bones, it has struck me that many ecologists have been missing useful information that is available in bones lying about on modern landscapes,” Behrensmeyer said. “Josh is showing the potential of using bones, antlers and other remains to monitor what animals have been doing for the past decades and even hundreds of years.”
Behrensmeyer said she hopes taphonomy as a research tool spreads from its traditional place in paleontology and archaeology into the realm of ecology.
“Sometimes we taphonomists feel like a small voice in the universe – it’s hard for the dead to capture the attention of scientists focused on understanding living organisms and ecosystems,” Behrensmeyer said. “Once ecologists see this study, they could very well say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”Writer:
Danielle Torrent | Newswise Science News
Scientists on the road to discovering impact of urban road dust
18.01.2018 | University of Alberta
Gran Chaco: Biodiversity at High Risk
17.01.2018 | Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...
For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.
Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...
At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.
No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.
Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...
The oceans are the largest global heat reservoir. As a result of man-made global warming, the temperature in the global climate system increases; around 90% of...
08.01.2018 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
18.01.2018 | Life Sciences
18.01.2018 | Life Sciences
18.01.2018 | Earth Sciences