"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 aff
|Contact: Joshua Miller|
University of Florida