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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Science Policy

Paleoecological and Taphonomic Implications of Insect-Damaged Pleistocene Vertebrate Remains from Rancho La Brea, Southern California
Published: Wednesday, July 03, 2013
Author: Anna R. Holden et al.

by Anna R. Holden, John M. Harris, Robert M. Timm

The La Brea Tar Pits, the world’s richest and most important Late Pleistocene fossil locality, offers unsurpassed insights into southern California’s past environments. Recent studies at Rancho La Brea document that insects serve as sensitive and valuable paleoecological and taphonomic indicators. Of the thousands of fossil bird and mammal bones recovered from the Tar Pits, insect trace damage is thus far almost exclusively confined to the foot bones of large herbivores, especially bison, camel, and horse species. Our laboratory experiments with dermestid and tenebrionid beetles establish that the larvae of both consume bone, producing different characteristic feeding traces and providing the first documentation that tenebrionids consume bone. The presence of carcass-exploiting insects in the Rancho La Brea biota provides insight into the taphonomy of the asphaltic bone masses and the environmental conditions under which they accumulated. The succession of dermestids, tenebrionids, and indeterminate traces on many of the foot elements, combined with the climate restrictions and life cycles of these insects, indicate that carcasses could remain unsubmerged for at least 17–20 weeks, thus providing the most reliable estimate to date. Attribution of these traces also suggests that the asphaltic fossils only accumulated during warmer intervals of the Late Pleistocene. Forensic studies need to reevaluate the role of tenebrionids in carcass decomposition and other additional insects that modify bone.
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