TitleThe dead do not lie: using skeletal remains for rapid assessment of historical small-mammal community baselines
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsTerry, RC
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Conservation and restoration efforts are often hindered by a lack of historical baselines that pre-date intense anthropogenic environmental change. In this paper I document that natural accumulations of skeletal remains represent a potential source of high-quality data on the historical composition and structure of small-mammal communities. I do so by assessing the fidelity of modern, decadal and centennial-scale time-averaged samples of skeletal remains (concentrated by raptor predation) to the living small-mammal communities from which they are derived. To test the power of skeletal remains to reveal baseline shifts, I employ the design of a natural experiment, comparing two taphonomically similar Great Basin cave localities in areas where anthropogenic land-use practices have diverged within the last century. I find relative stasis at the undisturbed site, but document rapid restructuring of the small-mammal community at the site subjected to recent disturbance. I independently validate this result using historical trapping records to show that dead remains accurately capture both the magnitude and direction of this baseline shift. Surveys of skeletal remains therefore provide a simple, powerful and rapid alternative approach for gaining insight into the historical structure and dynamics of modern small-mammal communities.