Using the past to predict the future can potentially help researchers with animal conservation efforts, explains Rachel Short, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management at South Dakota State University.
Short recently published a research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on work supported by her National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. Short was invited to lead a contribution to a special feature issue titled, “The Past as a Lens for Biodiversity Conservation on a Dynamically Changing Planet.” Her research investigated ankle bones in animal communities across the globe and through time.
"We are trying to get to where we are able to use the fossil record to inform conservation," Short said. "We have this really extensive record of animals responding to environmental change and climate change, and if we can build these models by using what's preserved in the fossil record, we can learn about how animals have responded in the past."
The ankle plays a crucial role in the way an animal moves about its environment. Ankle bones are preserved extremely well in the fossil record as they are a very dense bone and are not attractive to scavengers who might carry the bone away.
As Short notes, the shape of the ankle bone can give insights into an animal's environment and subsequent vegetation cover. For example, in areas that are predominately plains, species living in that environment are going to have ankles more suitable for running in straight lines. In areas with denser vegetation cover—like forests—species will have ankles more suitable for avoiding trees and climbing.
Short and her research partners investigated two groups: artiodactyls, split-hoofed mammals like bison, deer, giraffes and their relatives, and carnivorans, such as cats, wolves, bears and their relatives.
"We start in the modern," Short said. "We have hundreds of species that are assembled in communities across the globe, and I measured their ankle bones in museums. Then, we sampled thousands of these artiodactyls and carnivoran communities to develop our model of the relationship between ankle shape and vegetation cover.”
Using all the known, modern data that exists, Short was able to build a trophically integrated model by incorporating information from herbivores and carnivorans. She could then input fossil measurement data to better understand the past environment.
"Researchers have known for a long time that the morphology, or shape of the bones, relates to the environment," Short said. "But we have only recently started to look at it at the community level."
Both groups of animals contribute unique information to the model that leads to a greater understanding of the relationship between their movement and vegetation cover. Further, this model can help assess ecosystem changes over time.
By looking at the past, researchers can begin to anticipate how animals may respond to future climate and environmental changes, Short said. It's a key finding that could be crucial to the conservation of animals around the globe.
"We can use the fossils to learn about mammal communities and ecosystem function through these developed methods," Short said. " It might look like complex statistical models, but they could be really informative for conservation and natural resource management."
As the climate and environment continue to change, understanding how to better prepare for future conditions will be paramount for animal conservation. This research may help inform that preparation, Short added.