1999 Field Season: Day 7

July 1, 1999

Today we had a visitor in camp, Denne Reed, who is a graduate student at the University of New York at Stony Brook. He is studying East African microfauna (the small animals in an ecosystem) through their remains in owl pellets. The fossil remains of microfauna found in the basin are important indicators of ancient environments. Small animals tend to breed and evolve faster than larger ones, and they also tend to be more sensitive to changes in the environment. Thus collection of the microfauna bones from our sites, such as Site 15, is of equal importance as the butchered elephant we found there.

Denne Reed searching for evidence of owls.

The study of the modern microfauna in the Olorgesailie Basin is another important facet of our research here. Jennifer Clark recognized the importance of knowing the relationship between the microfauna and the environments of East Africa and initiated our study of the modern remains. This may seem odd at first. Since we are paleoanthropologists and paleontologists, we ought to just be studying the fossils. However, by studying what is around today, we can better reconstruct what the environment was like in the past, by comparing the types of small rodents, amphibians, and reptiles seen in both the modern and ancient samples.

Shrew skull.

Jenny invited Denne to help us hunt for owl pellets in the ravine just south of the A11-10 site, where they have been known to roost in years past. Owls eat many of the small animals that make up the area's microfauna. And when they eat, they swallow thier prey whole -- fur, bones, and all. The bone and fur don't digest well, and the owl is forced to regurgitate these, leaving scientists a record of what they ate through the skeletons in the pellets. Unfortunately, we were only able to locate a few pellets. Jenny has noted that with the current drought, many of the rodents usually present at this time of year are gone, and it appears that the owls have moved from their normal roosting sites (where we normally fine the pellets). Denne was able to give us some ideas as to where we might find their present roosts.

Owl pellets at the bottom of the gully.

During the search for the new roosts we located a civet den with a large amount of animal remains that were previously unknown to us. A civet is a cat-like nocturnal omnivore that eats a broad variety of berries, rodents, insects and other small animals. We collected the remains found in the den and brought them back to camp for washing, sieving and sorting. As an added bonus, while combing through the underbrush, we may have discovered a new archeological site.

Remains from a civet den.

Work is progressing at the various sites faster than expected. So tomorrow we will perform a careful survey of the basin to see if the rains uncovered new sites of interest in the last year.

A fossil rib.