Josh Miller likes to call himself a conservation paleobiologist. The label makes sense when he explains how he uses bones as up-to-last-season information on contemporary animal populations.
Bones, he says, provide baseline ecological data on animals complementary to aerial counts, adding a historical component to live observation. In his November cover article for the Ecological Society of America's journal Ecology, he assesses elk habitat use in Yellowstone National Park by their bones and antlers, testing his method against several decades of the Park Service's meticulous observations.
Now an assistant research professor in the new Quaternary and Anthropocene Research Group in the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati, Miller located and recorded the elk bone data while a doctoral student in paleontology at the University of Chicago, and finished analyzing the data during a brief stint at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. His work with modern animals grew out of curiosity about the fidelity of the fossil record in archiving animals and ecosystems of the distant past.
"It turns out that bones are really informative," he said. At Yellowstone, bone and antler concentrations mirror patterns of animal landscape use known from years of aerial surveys. "This opened up a completely unexpected opportunity for studying modern ecosystems, particularly for areas where our knowledge of animal populations is more limited."
Reconstructing animal community structure and habitat use through the bones of past generations is a new idea. Until recently, common knowledge held that, on the landscape, bones just don't last that long. But Miller has found that they can last for hundreds of years. Bones weather in a stereotypical pattern, from fresh to falling apart. He calibrated weathering in the Yellowstone bones through radiocarbon dating, gaining a familiarity that w
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Ecological Society of America