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Posted 02.15.05

MU Expert Suggests Using Prehistoric Data in Conservation Decisions

COLUMBIA, Mo. - When making decisions about conservation efforts for the future, experts need to dig deep into the past, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher.

In a new book, MU Anthropologist R. Lee Lyman said that the little exploited field of zooarchaeology could someday help save many endangered species and lead to better conservation efforts.

"The book is about past ecosystems and how that knowledge is valuable to those who contend with global change," said Lyman, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and editor of Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology.

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Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology

Zooarcheology is the study of animal remains recovered from archaeological excavations. Lyman's research introduces a new concept called "applied zooarcheology" that suggests sharing pre-historical data with wildlife managers and conservation biologists. Archaeologists are trained to look at very long spans of time, often thousands of years, while modern conservation efforts focus on today and what can be studied over a biologist's individual lifetime.

"This is a tremendous data source and we need to educate those who need it most," Lyman said. "Zooarchaeological research can indicate locations where a certain species once existed and may be most capable of surviving today."

Wildlife managers are often charged with the task of preserving populations of endangered species. In some cases, animal groups are moved to and from areas thought to be best for their survival. These decisions are partially based on historical data about where the animals may have once thrived. Historical documents from Lewis and Clark's journey are examples of what conservationists rely on to tell them how the ecological system looked in the past.

Historical documents are often incomplete and sometimes ambiguous or inaccurate. Lyman suggests that is where zooarchaeologists can fill in the gaps. By examining the past, bones and evidence of pre-historic plant life can give a much broader knowledge to those who need it to make decisions about future conservation efforts.

"A new job market could open up in this area in addition to new sources of funding," Lyman said. "Both may become available if we convince wildlife managers and conservation biologists, whose policies are typically aimed at the future, that knowing something about the past can result in better informed decisions."



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