Spatial fidelity of skeletal remains: elk wintering and calving grounds revealed by bones on the Yellowstone landscape

Authors

  • Joshua H. Miller

    Corresponding author
    1. Committee on Evolutionary Biology, The University of Chicago, 5734 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637 USA
    • Present addresses: Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Gainesville, Gainesville, Florida 32611 USA; and Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 45221 USA. E-mail: josh.miller@uc.edu

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  • Corresponding Editor: F. A. Smith.

Abstract

The spatial distributions of bones on landscape surfaces (death assemblages) may contain high-quality data on species' landscape use. Previous investigations into the spatial fidelity of death assemblages focused on general habitat preferences of the source community. Using well-studied elk populations of Yellowstone National Park, I test the geographic sensitivity of death assemblages by assessing the fidelity of shed elk antlers to the distribution of bull elk in late winter (documented through aerial surveys). I also test the geographic fidelity of newborn calf bones to known calving areas. The spatial distribution of antlers is highly faithful to bull elk landscape use, describing the decadally averaged distribution of wintering grounds as well or better than individual aerial surveys. Discrepancies in geographic distributions between recent wintering patterns and the multi-decadal antler assemblage also suggests differences in winter landscape use between current and historical (wolf-free) populations. Neonatal remains, including those partially consumed by carnivores, were always recovered in known calving areas, and all sampled calving grounds produced neonatal bones. Bone surveys are a new, minimally invasive, low-impact tool for obtaining high-quality historically informed data on species' geographic and habitat requirements. This tool will be particularly useful for managing sensitive species, fragile ecosystems, and poorly studied regions.

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