SRI Stories: Bones of The Past Teach Us About The Present

April 22, 2024

Animal bones found in Utah’s caves are being used to study the impact of climate change on current animal communities. “I like to think of it as just one big puzzle,” Kasey Cole, Science Research Initiative (SRI) post-doctoral researcher and stream leader, states. “We can look at past records of animals and compare them to modern records of animals in that same area.”

Kasey has always been interested in studying the past. Originally from California, she graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in anthropology. “I started as a history major,” Kasey says. “But I took an archaeology course, just as a general education requirement, and realized I can incorporate science and a more hands-on approach to learning about the past.” She then received her master’s from California State University, Chico, before coming to the University of Utah to get her PhD.

Left to right: Randall Irmis, NHMU’s curator of paleontology, Dr. Tyler Faith, NHMU’s chief curator, and caver Tom Evans examine and collect mammal bones on the floor of Tubafore Cave. Credit: Colin Stern

“My advisor, Jack Broughton, is a wonderful archaeologist, and he specializes in zooarchaeology of western North America, the exact thing I wanted to do,” says Kasey. “The anthropology program is unified by an evolutionary and ecological theoretical perspective, which is something I wanted to pursue more. I liked the connection with biology and the connection with ecology, so that’s what got me hooked. With my background in zooarchaeology, I study environmental change in the past.” Her expertise also includes paleoecology and she works as a research affiliate for the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) and the Department of Anthropology. The Utah Cave Paleo project started when citizen cavers began noticing bones at the bottom of caves they were exploring.

Enter Tyler Faith, chief curator and Randy Irmis, curator of paleontology at NHMU. They were interested in the findings and have since collected many bones from caves throughout Utah over the past four years. Last year, Kasey was brought in because of her expertise in North American fauna in order to identify and research the bones.

“At the time, I was one of Tyler Faith’s graduate students,” says Kasey. “He brought me into this project — perfect for a postdoc,” and she has been studying the bones from these Utah caves ever since.

The collaboration between the NHMU, SRI, and local cavers made this research possible, which is providing a glimpse into the past. The bones range in age, from only a few weeks old to hundreds of years old. In terms of archaeology, the caves are a gold mine, allowing researchers to understand animal communities before anthropogenic climate change. The data from the bones are then compared to current animal communities to see how they are affected by climate change.

Kaedan O’Brien, lead author of published findings from Utah caves, and anthropology Ph.D. candidate at the U, holds up a mummified wood rat at an undisclosed cave in the House Range of western Utah. Credit: Randy Irmis

“I use the term paleoecologist,” says Kasey when describing herself. “I study old environments. And the way I do that is by studying animal bones from either archaeological or paleontological contexts. I then use those animals to help me reconstruct what the environment looked like.”

Kasey’s research is interdisciplinary, involving biology, ecology, anthropology, chemistry, climate science, among others. By studying past environments through animal bones, Cole can ask questions about the climate and geologic record and even questions about human behavior.

Some of the insights provided by this research include records of the now-extinct Southern Rocky Mountain Wolf, from bones recovered in a cave in the Uinta Mountain range. These wolves went extinct in the early 1900s, and records of them are rare because of how quickly they disappeared due to eradication by humans.

The cave bones also indicate the presence of wolverines, animals that are extremely rare in Utah, with only eight confirmed sightings in Utah since the 1970s. However, bones in these caves imply resident populations of the animal.

Kasey Cole posing next to special exhibit at the Natural History Musem of Utah.

The project is beginning to expand out of the Wasatch and Uinta and into other mountain ranges such as Utah’s House Range located in Millard County. Within some of these caves, the remains of bighorn sheep are being discovered, which is fascinating since there is no historical or modern record of them in the region.

The SRI students in Kasey’s lab not only assisted with this research, but they get to explore their own individual research projects.

“It’s associated with the stream, but they’re focused on questions they’re asking,” says Cole about student activities. “The students all learn the process of identifying bones, but at the end of the semester, I want them all to have an individual project idea, so they can conduct that research the next semester. All of these research projects have transferable skills that pre-med students or other students can take with them.”

Kasey is involved with SRI because she’s passionate about teaching, and SRI is a great place for students to learn research skills and gain access to research opportunities. “The thing that brings me the most joy is talking to students and teaching them,” she says. “Also breaking down these antiquated barriers for people in science and giving people opportunities.”

Kasey Cole’s research is currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah in a special exhibit which opened April 1 and will be on display until early September.


By CJ Siebeneck

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.