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Bones of long-dead animals conjure ghosts at Yellowstone

They tell a story, these bleached bones that gleam in the sun in Yellowstone National Park.

Bones on landscapes like Yellowstone may provide detailed accounts of how animal populations have changed over the last few decades or even century, scientists have found.

"The skeletons of long-dead animals lying on landscapes provide critical insights into our understanding of ecosystem history, especially how populations have changed," says biologist Joshua Miller of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

His results, published today in the journal PLoS ONE, provide a deeper context for the many disturbances altering ecosystems around the world, including global warming, overharvesting and habitat destruction.

Miller performed much of the research while doing his Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago.

"These changes result in population reductions and extinctions of some species, while others expand and invade new habitats and regions," Miller says.

"Most ecosystems have not been studied over long time spans--many decades at least--which hampers the ability of wildlife managers and other scientists to properly document or mediate these dramatic ecological changes."

In his research, Miller surveyed bones from the skeletons of hoofed mammals, or ungulates, in Yellowstone National Park.

Then he compared the numbers of each species documented in bones, to surveys of the living populations.

He found that all native species in the living community were recovered, and that the order of species from most abundant to least abundant was similar for the bones and for the living community.

"While the fossil record yields valuable insights into ancient ecological communities, understanding community change over the time scale of centuries has been difficult," says Saran Twombly, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, whi

Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation

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