Ghosts of yellowstone: multi-decadal histories of wildlife populations captured by bones on a modern landscape.
Natural accumulations of skeletal material (death assemblages) have the potential to provide historical data on species diversity and population structure for regions lacking decades of wildlife monitoring, thereby contributing valuable baseline data for conservation and management strategies. Previous studies of the ecological and temporal resolutions of death assemblages from terrestrial large-mammal communities, however, have largely focused on broad patterns of community composition in tropical settings. Here, I expand the environmental sampling of large-mammal death assemblages into a temperate biome and explore more demanding assessments of ecological fidelity by testing their capacity to record past population fluctuations of individual species in the well-studied ungulate community of Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone). Despite dramatic ecological changes following the 1988 wildfires and 1995 wolf re-introduction, the Yellowstone death assemblage is highly faithful to the living community in species richness and community structure. These results agree with studies of tropical death assemblages and establish the broad capability of vertebrate remains to provide high-quality ecological data from disparate ecosystems and biomes. Importantly, the Yellowstone death assemblage also correctly identifies species that changed significantly in abundance over the last 20 to ∼80 years and the directions of those shifts (including local invasions and extinctions). The relative frequency of fresh versus weathered bones for individual species is also consistent with documented trends in living population sizes. Radiocarbon dating verifies the historical source of bones from Equus caballus (horse): a functionally extinct species. Bone surveys are a broadly valuable tool for obtaining population trends and baseline shifts over decadal-to-centennial timescales.