How Many Generations are Available for Study? Expectations and Applications of Historical Ecological Insight from Bones Lying on Modern Landscapes


  • Joshua H. Miller University of Cincinnati
  • Eric J. Wald United States Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Patrick Druckenmiller University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Carl Simpson University of Colorado



time-averaging, radiocarbon dating (14C), caribou (Rangifer tarandus), seasonal landscape use, migration


Skeletal remains lying on landscape surfaces are useful for evaluating historical states of living populations, but across how much time can such resources inform management and conservation? Further, how do differences in environmental setting impact the breadth of the available timeseries? Using radiocarbon dated bones from across the globe, we evaluated the relationship between the maximum duration that bones persist on landscapes and the mean annual temperature of each locality. We found that bones can persist for several millennia in cold (high-latitude) settings and that there is a strong link (R2 > 0.9, p < 0.01) between local temperature and the logged duration of maximum bone persistence. This relationship provides an initial expectation for the duration across which skeletal remains from different settings can provide historical ecological context. Across the Holarctic, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are the most abundant large mammal and arguably the most economically significant one for multiple human cultures, including serving as a key nutritional and cultural resource. For migratory caribou, movements between winter ranges and spring calving grounds are among the longest annual migrations of any terrestrial species and maintaining access to these areas is a top conservation priority. But how long have herds used particular calving grounds? Shed female antlers lying on the tundra provide insight into historical calving geography because they are shed within days of giving birth. Following antler surveys across the Coastal Plain calving grounds (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska) of the Porcupine Caribou Herd (PCH), we radiocarbon dated three highly weathered female antlers. Antler ages ranged between ~1,600 and >3,000 calendar years ago. These antlers provide the first physical evidence of calving activity on the PCH calving grounds from previous millennia and substantiate the long ecological legacy of the Coastal Plain as a caribou calving ground.

Journal cover with title Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History and a photograph of a great blue heron




How to Cite

Miller, J., Wald, E., Druckenmiller, P., & Simpson, C. (2023). How Many Generations are Available for Study? Expectations and Applications of Historical Ecological Insight from Bones Lying on Modern Landscapes. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History, 60(2), 98.