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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Bones of Amboseli Park, Kenya

The Amboseli ecosystem lies in a basin north of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Research on the taphonomy of modern vertebrates in this ecosystem has been a major focus of my career and involves long-term collaboration with ecologist David Western. The broad goal of this study is to understand the complex processes that lead from living animals through death assemblages into the fossil record.

I initiated the research project after meeting Western in 1974 and visiting Amboseli; three grants from the National Geographic Society have provided the primary source of funding for field work, and the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya have provided institutional support in Kenya.


The taphonomic data from Amboseli are based on repeated systematic surveys of bones that occur on the ground surface in different habitats as well as monitoring of marked carcasses and focused study of hyena dens and other bone concentration areas.

Changes in the marked carcasses were documented over time, providing data on destructive processes and a test of whether bone weathering stages can be used as a “taphonomic clock.”

Over 30 papers have been published on the research to date, providing new understanding for paleobiologists and ecologists about many aspects of natural bone recycling and taphonomy as well as how bones represent a living community over decade-scale changes in the basin ecology. The 2009 Science paper on this work with David Western, who has counted the live animals in Amboseli since the late 1960’s, fulfilled a long-term goal to compare the living and the dead over time.

This showed that skeletal assemblages accurately track the living populations from which they are derived, indicating that it should be possible to infer similarly accurate paleoecological information in the vertebrate fossil record.


Repeated visits (N=15) to the Amboseli “taphosystem” over the past 3 decades have provided a lesson in how much things can change, and how one should be careful about generalizing based on single-year observations. When I first saw Amboseli in 1974, bones were everywhere and it seemed to be an ideal site for taphonomic research. In the 1960's-1970's, these abundant bones reflected a diverse community of herbivores and carnivores. Since the 1970's, Amboseli has lost most of its woodlands and now is open grassland and swamp (see also first two images on page).

This trend is accompanied by a decline in species richness and greater dominance of grazing herbivores. In the late 1980's through early 2000's, lions were absent and spotted hyenas were the major predator in the Park, with a greatly increased local population.

Spotted hyenas are able to consume large ungulate bones while lions are not (bone-crushing vs. meat slicing dentitions). Bone surveys in 2002-04 showed that this correlates with a marked decrease (74%) in the number of bones in the surface assemblage. Thus, the nature of the surface bone assemblage changed drastically with a shift in the dominant carnivore; where there were many bones per individual carcass in 1975, there were only fragmentary remains in the early 2000’s. Even with the increased level of bone destruction, however, the ecological information contained in what remained was largely intact (See paper by Western and Behrensmeyer, 2009).


In addition to testing the fidelity of ecological information in the bone assemblage and the living community, one of the original ideas for the Amboseli bone research was to use the data to simulate “artificial fossil assemblages” for comparison with actual fossil bone assemblages, and I am still working toward that goal while continuing to analyze the rich body of data and the collections from this long-term research project.


Amboseli also provides a model for how modern bone surveys can be used as a tool for conservation and ecological monitoring. Several other recent taphonomic studies have used the Amboseli bone survey methods as guidelines for capturing similar data for different ecosystems (Josh Miller – Yellowstone National Park, Tyler Faith – Shompole-Ol Karamatian, Kenya, and Fred Lala Odock, Meru Park, Kenya). Guidelines and a datasheet template for modern bone surveys can be downloaded HERE.




1978. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Taphonomic and ecologic information from bone weathering. Paleobiology 4(2): l50-l62.

1979. Behrensmeyer, A. K., D. Western, D. E. Dechant Boaz. New perspectives in paleoecology from a recent bone assemblage, Amboseli Park, Kenya. Paleobiology 5(l): l2-2l.

1980. Western, D. Linking the ecology of past and present mammal communities. In: A. K. Behrensmeyer and A. Hill (eds.), Fossils in the Making (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press), pp. 72-93.

1980. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and D. E. Dechant. The recent bones of Amboseli Park, Kenya in relation to East African paleoecology." In A. K. Behrensmeyer and A. Hill (eds.), Fossils in the Making (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press), pp. 72-93.

1981. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and D. E. Boaz. Late Pleistocene geology and paleontology of Amboseli National Park, Kenya. In Paleoecology of Africa , vol. l3, eds. J. Coetzee and E. M. van Zinderen Bakker, pp. l35-l88.

1981. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Vertebrate paleoecology in a recent East African ecosystem. In Gray, J., A. J. Boucot and W. B. N. Barry, Communities of the Past. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Dowden, Hutchinson and Ross, pp. 59l-6l6.

1982. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Time sampling intervals in the vertebrate fossil record. Proceedings North Am. Paleont. Conv. III, Vol. l: 4l-45.

1982. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Time resolution in fluvial vertebrate assemblages. Paleobiology 8:2ll-227.

1983. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Natural bone distributions on recent land surfaces: implications for archeological site formation. In: Animals and Archeology : l. Hunters and their prey . Eds. J. Clutton-Brock and C. Grigson. British Archeological Reports, Series l63. Pp. 93-l06.

1982. Badgley, C. E. How much time is represented in the present?: The development of time-averaged assemblages as models for the fossil record. Proceedings North Am. Paleont. Conv. III, Vol. l: 23-28.

l984. Behrensmeyer, A. K. The bones of Amboseli Park as a key to East African paleoecology, National Geographic Society. Research Reports l6:9l-l09.
l984. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Taphonomy: new insights for the fossil record. American Scientist 72:558-566.

l984. Hill, A. and Behrensmeyer, A. K. Disarticulation patterns of East African ungulates. Paleobiology l0(3):366-376.

l985. Hill, A. and Behrensmeyer, A. K. More natural disarticulation and butchery. American Antiquity 50(l):l4l-l45.

l986. Behrensmeyer, A. K., Gordon, Kathleen D., and Yanagi, Glenn T. Trampling as a cause of bone surface damage and pseudo-cutmarks. Nature 3l9:768-77l.

1987. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Taphonomy and Hunting. In: Nitecki, M. H. and Nitecki, D. V., eds. The Evolution of Hunting, p. 423-450. (New York: Plenum).

1989. Tuross, N., Behrensmeyer, A. K., Eanes, E. D., Fisher, L. W., and Hare, P. E. Biochemical and Crystallographic Changes in a Weathering Sequence of Wildebeeste Bones. Applied Geochemistry 4:261-270.

1989. Tuross, N., Behrensmeyer, A. K., and Eanes, E. D. 1989. Strontium increases and crystallinity changes in taphonomic and archaeological bone. Journal of Archeological Science 16: 661-672.

1991. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Bone assemblages and ecological change in East Africa. Preliminary Report to the National Geographic Society (Unpublished).

1992. Koch, P. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. Determining the source-area of ivory through isotopic analysis. African Wildlife Foundation: Elephant and Ivory Information Service No. 19:1-4.

1993. Behrensmeyer, A. K. The bones of Amboseli: Bone assemblages and ecological change in a modern African ecosystem. National Geographic Research 9(4): 402-421.
1993. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and R. E. Chapman. "Models and simulations of taphonomic time-averaging in terrestrial vertebrate assemblages. In: Taphonomic Approaches to Time Resolution in Fossil Assemblages: 125-149. Edited by S. Kidwell and A. K. Behrensmeyer, Short Courses in Paleontology No. 6. Knoxville, Tennessee: Paleontological Society.

1995. Koch, P. L., Heisinger, J., Moss, C., Carlson, R. W., Fogel, M. L., and Behrensmeyer, A.K. Isotopic tracking of change in diet and habitat use in African elephants. Science 267:1340-1343.

1999. Cutler, A. H., A. K. Behrensmeyer, and R. E. Chapman. Environmental information in a recent bone assemblage: roles of taphonomic processes and ecological change. In: Martin, R., S. Goldstein and R. T. Patterson, Eds., Fossil Taphonomy: Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction and Environmental Assessment. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 149: 359-372.

2001. Koch, P. L., Behrensmeyer, A. K., Tuross, N., Stott, A. W., Evershed, R. P., and Fogel, M. L. The effects of surficial weathering on the stable isotope composition of bones. Ancient Biomolecules 3:117-134.

2003. Behrensmeyer, A. K., C. T. Stayton and R. E. Chapman. Taphonomy and Ecology of Modern Avifaunal Remains from Amboseli Park, Kenya. Paleobiology 29(1):52-70.

2004. Trueman, C. N. G., A. K. Behrensmeyer, N. Tuross and S. Weiner. Mineralogical and compositional changes in bones exposed on soil surfaces in Amboseli National Park, Kenya: Diagenetic mechanisms and the role of sediment pore fluids. Journal of Archeological Science 31:721-739.

2006. Faith, J. T. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. Changing patterns of carnivore modification in a landscape bone assemblage, Amboseli Park, Kenya. Journal of Archeological Science 33: 1718-1733.

2007. Faith, J.T., Marean, C.W., and Behrensmeyer, A.K. Carnivore competition, bone destruction, and bone density. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:2025-2034.

2007. Behrensmeyer, Anna K. Changes through Time in Carcass Survival in the Amboseli ecosystem, southern Kenya. In: Pickering, T., Schick, K, and Toth, N., Eds., Breathing Life into Fossils: Taphonomic Studies in Honor of C.K. (Bob) Brain, Pp. 137-160. Stone Age Institute Publication Series Number 2. (Gosport, Indiana: Stone Age Institute Press).

2009. Western, D. and A. K. Behrensmeyer, Bones track community structure over four decades of ecological change. Science 324: 1061-1064.

Abstracts (2000-2009):


2002. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Taphonomic Impact of Predators in the Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 22 (Supplement to #3): 35A.

2004. Behrensmeyer, Anna K. Changes over three decades in skeletal part survival and bone modification in the Amboseli ecosystem, southern Kenya. For: African Taphonomy: A Tribute to the Career of C.K. "Bob" Brain Feitschrift and Conference, April 2004.

2005. Lansing, S. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. Analysis of faunal remains from spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) dens in Amboseli Park, Kenya, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 25(3):82A.

2005. Miller, J. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. Skeletal distributions across time; a multivariate approach to the changing taphonomy of Amboseli Park, Kenya, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 25(3):92A.

2006. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and J. T. Faith. Post-mortem damage to bone surfaces in the modern landscape assemblage of Amboseli Park, Kenya, with implications for the fossil record. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26(3):40A.

2006. Faith, J. T. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. Changing patterns of carnivore modification in the modern landscape bone assemblage of Amboseli Park, Kenya. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26(3):59A.

2008. Western, D. and A. K. Behrensmeyer. The living and the dead: how bones record 40 years of ecological change in the Amboseli Ecosystem of southern Kenya. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 28, Suppl. to #3:159A.

2009. Behrensmeyer, A. K. High fidelity bone taphonomy in the Amboseli ecosystem of southern Kenya. 9th North American Paleontological Convention Abstracts, Cincinnati Museum Center Scientific Contributions 3:161.

2009. Behrensmeyer, A. K. Bones, Ecology, and Hominins: Paleoanthropological implications of taphonomic research in Amboseli Park, Kenya, for symposium in honor of P. Andrews, UCL, London.

2009. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and D. Western. Bone burial in land surface assemblages and its impact on the vertebrate fossil record. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29, Suppl. to #3:61.


2012. Behrensmeyer, A. K. and J. H. Miller. Building links between ecology and palaeontology using taphonomic studies of recent vertebrate communities. In: J. Louys, Ed., Palaeontology in Ecology and Conservation, pp. 69-91. (New York: Springer)


The Bones of Amboseli - Current and Planned Research


1) Write-up of buried bone component and how this tracks changes in the surface bones and the living community (based on 2009 SVP presentation).

2) Proposal submitted to the National Geographic Society for a new phase of field work in September-October, 2010, to document a severe mass mortality event that hit the grazing ungulates during 2009. Collaborators include David Western, Fred Lala Odock, Josh Miller, and Catherine Badgley.

3) Write-up of termite damage to Amboseli bones, observed and documented over the course of the last 30 years. This will be of comparative value for paleobiologists interpreting traces of insect damage found on fossil bones.

4) Update publication planned on bone weathering based on 30+ years of monitoring of known-age carcasses.

5) Cataloguing and photography of collections at NMNH that document taphonomic features in modern bones, as part of the National Taphonomy Reference Collection.

6) Collaboration with Noreen Tuross and Bridget Annelia Alex (Harvard University, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology) who are investigating isotopic signals of H and O in the collagen of bone weathering series from different species. These may provide evidence for diet and/or seasonal stress that could be applied to other modern or fossil bones.


Information for Students:

Students interested in working with Dr. Behrensmeyer or in learning more about her current and future work in Amboseli should email Dr. Behrensmeyer directly.


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