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Skeleton Is Key in New Conservation Paleobiology Research

Geology professor’s paper on data gathered from elk bones is featured in the scholarly journal Ecology. His research offers new ways of thinking about land development and conservation.

Date: 12/6/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Joshua Miller and Scott Rose

UC ingot   The University of Cincinnati’s Joshua Miller has found that the bones of long-dead elk can come alive with valuable information that just might help maintain natural ecosystems around the world.
Professor Joshua Miller studies bone survey data sheets on Northern Range, Yellowstone National Park.

Miller, a research professor in the Geology Department in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, had his paper, “Spatial Fidelity of Skeletal Remains: Elk wintering and calving grounds revealed by bones on the Yellowstone landscape,” featured on the cover of the current issue of Ecology magazine.

Ecology is a scholarly journal published by the Ecological Society of America, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to the promotion of ecological science through improved communication and resource development. The journal puts an emphasis on publishing papers that develop new concepts in ecology, that test ecological theory or that lead to an increased appreciation for the diversity of ecological phenomena.

“There is a lot of great work that is published in Ecology – it is a true honor to have my study featured,” Miller says. “It is additionally exciting as it highlights the bourgeoning field of Conservation Paleobiology, which uses what are traditionally paleontological methods to add new insights and historical contexts to our understanding of modern ecosystems.”

Miller studies the ecological information contained in natural accumulations of bones. The ecological data contained in bone accumulations can provide a record of past ecosystems and provide high-quality data on the historical variability of modern populations. Paleontologists rely on ancient bone deposits to reconstruct extinct communities. Similarly, modern bone accumulations contain valuable historical population data for understudied animal communities.
A partial elk carcass in Yellowstone National Park.

Through a combination of ecology, wildlife management, conservation biology, paleobiology and geographic information system techniques, Miller explores the ecological data contained in bone accumulations from the modern, sub-fossil and fossil realms. He sees his research as a way to gain new and better perspectives of how humankind should pursue further resource acquisition, land development and ecosystem conservation.

“As human populations continue to grow, so do our demands on the environment,” Miller says. “As we do this, we also need to maintain the native ecosystems nearby. My work uses bones accumulations to gain historical perspectives on modern ecosystems and help gain a fuller understanding of how ecosystems function and what changes have occurred across the 20th century and before. In this way, my research allows us to make more informed decisions.”

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