Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Planet Earth

Giant Analysis Agrees: Fossils Are Telling the Truth

Ancient bones from many animals lying in a big jumble are more easily put in context than you might think.

By Amy BarthOctober 13, 2009 5:00 AM
Image courtesy of Anna K. Behrensmeyer | NULL


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Paleontologists often find fossils in a jumble containing many species’ remains, and then struggle with the question of whether the mixed bones represent the community as it existed when the animals lived. To get an answer, paleobiologist Kay Behrensmeyer of the Smithsonian Institution and ecologist David Western of the African Conservation Centre in Kenya compared 40 years of data on the mix of herbivores in Africa’s Amboseli ecosystem—including Cape buffalo, gazelles, and elephants—to the bone assemblages left behind as the animals died during the same time frame.

The researchers suspected that smaller animals’ remains might be consumed completely by scavengers and that their delicate bones were more easily destroyed. But they found that the higher birth rates of small creatures made up for their more fragile bodies. “The effects cancel out and leave an accurate representation of the numbers of different animals. We didn’t expect anything as convenient as that,” Western says. The scientists’ analysis of more than 25,000 bones and 170,000 live animals showed that the distribution of species among the bones corresponded well to the living community, even through periods of rapid ecological change.

Behrensmeyer now plans to examine ancient bone assemblages in a study of human remains that are more than a million years old.

    3 Free Articles Left

    Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

    Want unlimited access?

    Subscribe today and save 70%


    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In