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A taphonomic investigation of small vertebrate accumulations produced by the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and its implications for fossil studies

Royer, Aurélien, Montuire, Sophie, Gilg, Olivier, Laroulandie, Véronique
Palaeogeography, palaeoclimatology, palaeoecology 2019 v.514 pp. 189-205
Bubo scandiacus, birds of prey, breeding sites, confidence interval, digestion, fossils, humans, pellets, terminology, Arctic region, Greenland
The action of predators, such as diurnal raptors, owls, mammals or humans, influence the nature of small vertebrate fossil assemblages but currently their taphonomic features are still poorly understood. In this study, we investigate the taphonomic signature of the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) based on an analysis of pellets collected at breeding sites located in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. This taxon is widely distributed through the North Hemisphere and was an important predator in Pleistocene times. Taphonomic parameters suggest that, contrary to previous assumptions, B. scandiacus produces, on average, moderate digestion of incisors, molars and post-cranial elements, and should be classed as a Category 3 or Category 3/4 predator according to the terminology established by Andrews. Significant inter-site variability was observed for some of the damage considered (in particular, digestion on incisors), and a key finding is that variability and the associated statistical confidence intervals are crucial notions that should be taken into account when assessing taphonomical features, in order to reliably identify the potential predator(s) responsible for small vertebrate fossil accumulations.