The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Serengeti micromammals: testing the predictive ability of owl pellet assemblages for reconstructing paleohabitats


1Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 2School of Dental Sciences, Newcastle University, 3Department of Anthropology, New York University

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Human ancestors have faced changing environments through time, and these changes have had a direct impact on human evolution. Therefore, reconstructing paleoenvironments is an important aspect of paleoanthropological research.

This study tests the power of one approach toward paleoenvironmental reconstruction: the use of micromammal taxonomic relative abundance as an ecological indicator. Micromammals offer a unique, fine-scale spatial resolution suitable for reconstructing localized habitats (100-1,000m). Owls are one of the primary accumulators of micromammals, and, because of their roosting habits, reliably deposit remains in predictable locations. Previous studies indicate that these assemblages are a relatively accurate representation of the micromammals within a 1km radius. Many sites preserve micromammalian assemblages from crucial periods in human evolutionary and archaeological history. Despite the great promise of micromammal assemblages for reconstructing paleoenvironments, there has been no blind test of this methodology on a known habitat.

This study provides a blind test of a single micromammalian assemblage (HA1) collected approximately 250km from the comparative base of 12 owl roosts across the Serengeti ecosystem. Two researchers, both unaware of the origin of HA1, made independent analyses and habitat reconstructions. These interpretations were then compared to each other and the site’s actual location and habitat type. There was no disagreement between observers, and the provided environmental information for HA1 fit well within the predicted habitat description. Though there was some anthropogenic disturbance at HA1, the habitat type was accurately predicted. This blind test validates the use of micromammal taxonomic abundances for reconstructing past environments.

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