Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Bones conjure Yellowstone's ecological ghosts

Date:
March 29, 2011
Source:
University of Chicago
Summary:
By taking a closer look at animal bones scattered across the wilderness landscape, a researcher has found a powerful tool for showing how species' populations have changed over decades or even a century.

This elk skull and other remains recovered during Joshua Miller's study of Yellowstone National Park are revealing details about the region's ecological history. Miller published his findings in the March 28 issue of PLoS ONE.
Credit: Scott Rose

By taking a closer look at animal bones scattered across the wilderness landscape, a researcher at the University of Chicago has found a powerful tool for showing how species' populations have changed over decades or even a century.

"The skeletons of long-dead animals lying on landscapes provide critical insight into our understanding of ecosystem history, especially how populations have changed," said the study's author, University of Chicago alumnus Joshua H. Miller, S.M.'05, PhD'09, a postdoctoral research fellow in biological sciences at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The study, published in the March 28 issue of PLoS ONE, presents data that Miller collected for his UChicago doctoral dissertation. His study provides a deeper context for the many disturbances that are altering ecosystems around the world, including global warming, overharvesting and habitat destruction.

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

Surveying the bones of Yellowstone

In research funded by the National Science Foundation, Miller surveyed bones from the skeletons of hoofed mammals (ungulates) in Yellowstone National Park. The bones ranged in age from newly dead to approximately 200 years old.

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

Miller found that all the 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 the living community. Species whose populations significantly diminished or expanded over the last 20 to 80 years were predictably over- or under-represented in the bones relative to the living community.

"Live elk were much more abundant in the 1990s than they are today," Miller said, "and the bones of Yellowstone feature far more elk than one would predict based on the current Yellowstone community."

Horses, which were replaced by cars as the dominant mode of transportation in Yellowstone in the early 1900s, also are readily found as skeletal remains. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that horse bones were generally remnants from when the cavalry controlled Yellowstone in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

In contrast to these ghosts of larger past populations, species that have recently increased in abundance (bison and the recently arrived mountain goat) are less common in the skeletal record than current living populations would predict. Overall, the bones of Yellowstone correlate well with the area's historical ecosystem and provide more detailed information about the historical community than can be acquired from only studying the ecosystem today.

"Bones provide a great tool for uncovering historical ecological data that allow us to put modern biodiversity in a broader temporal context," Miller said. "The living populations of Yellowstone have been studied for a long time and provide a great opportunity to test how well bones record species' histories. Now we can go the next step and use bone accumulations in regions we have only recently begun studying to obtain critical historical data and establish how ecosystems have changed over the last decades, century or even longer."

Miller's research also suggests that the ecological information contained in the fossil record may provide more biological details on extinct ecosystems than previously thought.

"Josh has shown that the bones of Yellowstone accurately track recent and not-so-recent history of the large mammal populations in this famous North American ecosystem," said Kay Behrensmeyer, curator of vertebrate paleontology of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "This should be a wake-up call for ecologists interested in the movements, increases and declines of large mammal populations anywhere -- bones are a relatively untapped and valuable source of ecological data about animals when they were alive."

Miller received the 2008 Romer Prize in paleontology for the research, which was supervised by Susan Kidwell, UChicago's William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Chicago. The original article was written by Steve Koppes. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Joshua H. Miller. Ghosts of Yellowstone: Multi-Decadal Histories of Wildlife Populations Captured by Bones on a Modern Landscape. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (3): e18057 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018057

Cite This Page:

University of Chicago. "Bones conjure Yellowstone's ecological ghosts." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 March 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110328171222.htm>.
University of Chicago. (2011, March 29). Bones conjure Yellowstone's ecological ghosts. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110328171222.htm
University of Chicago. "Bones conjure Yellowstone's ecological ghosts." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110328171222.htm (accessed April 17, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Change of Diet Helps Crocodile Business

Change of Diet Helps Crocodile Business

Reuters - Business Video Online (Apr. 16, 2014) — Crocodile farming has been a challenge in Zimbabwe in recent years do the economic collapse and the financial crisis. But as Ciara Sutton reports one of Europe's biggest suppliers of skins to the luxury market has come up with an unusual survival strategy - vegetarian food. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) — A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Thousands Of Vials Of SARS Virus Go Missing

Thousands Of Vials Of SARS Virus Go Missing

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) — A research institute in Paris somehow misplaced more than 2,000 vials of the deadly SARS virus. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Three Rare White Tiger Cubs Debut at Zoo

Raw: Three Rare White Tiger Cubs Debut at Zoo

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) — The Buenos Aires Zoo debuted a trio of rare white Bengal tiger cubs on Wednesday. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins