How Bird Vomit Helps Us Understand History


What if I told you that this 10,000-year-old owl pellet can hold crucial information for preserving the future of Australia’s fragile ecosystems? It’s true. The specimen along with a 100,000 others
was collected by Field curator Bill Turnbull from the Nullarbor plain region of
southern Australia in the 1950s. And today, its information is being used
to help perserve Australian habitats. Here’s the neat thing about this
congealed bird vomit. Nocturnal raptors like owls primarily feed
on rodents and they eat a lot to satisfy their dietary needs. The bones and fur aren’t digested
so those parts are regurgitated in the form of pellets. Some owl species return to the same
roosting sites for generations regurgitating pellets in massive piles
over a period of many years and luckily for us, a few of these sites
have been preserved in caves and sheltered from the elements. So in the last tens to hundreds of thousands
of years, these large owl pellet accumulations have given paleontologists a phenomenal record
for what sort of rodents were historically found in the region. And just like how fossil life is stratified in layers
of rock, the ages of rodents too become stratified the deeper you dig in these massive
piles of raptor pellets. So, why are so interested in this information? Well, in the last 200 years since European
settlement in Australia, the country has experienced an alarming
rate of mammal extinction. Greated than any other continent. Since there’s no written record of what the
mammal diversity of Australia looked like before Europeans arrived, scientists have
to be creative with interpreting the country’s plant and animal history, which in this case means sorting through
these raptor pellets as a great starting point. This gives scientists a way to look at the past in order to help shape the future. And I’ve got a ton of questions about this, so recently we sat down with Dr. Matthew McDowell,
a post-doctoral researcher at Flinders University in South Australia
to learn more about his work as a paleoecologist and his affection
for raptor pallets. [Dr. McDowell:] This is a sample of the kind of thing
that gets scooped up off of the floor of a cave with the fine dust gotten rid of.
[Emily:] Okay. [Dr. McDowell:] Now, that’s usually made up
of things like this – an owl has eaten and then regurgitated before it flies out
to go hunting the next night. We don’t have any of the really fresh ones
but they’re all very glossy and mucus-covered, and… Yeah. May be gross, but… [Emily:] Kind of fun stuff.
[Dr. McDowell:] Yeah. This has been washed pretty well except
for these chunks on top which have been kept so that you
can see what it looked like. [Emily:] And then, when you have all of this
material, you’re taking a pile like this and you’re having to sort through all of it to figure out the species under there. [Dr. McDowell:] Yeah. That’s best
done with the teeth. For a couple of reasons. They’re the most durable part
of an animal’s body, so they last the longest. But they’re also complex shapes because different
food is best processed by different types of teeth. And then you get to the stage here where you’ve only got
the bits that are easily identified which are mainly teeth and jaws. Once we go from these, we identify them,
we work out whether it’s the left or the right specimen, what kind of species it is, then it goes to this stage where
it gets put in a vial with a label. [Emily:] With its own number.
[Dr. McDowell:] Yeah, with its own number. Individually, usually individually, sometimes in a lot if you’ve got millions of them like we do in this case. And that one’s got all of its teeth. So that
would be an easy one to identify. [Emily:] What is it?
[Dr. McDowell:] I don’t know, I haven’t got a microscope. [Emily:] Oh. [Emily:] So, through the process of what seems like a really gross thing, which is sorting through owl vomit, you’re able to look at what sort of rodents and
small animals used to be living in an area. [Dr. McDowell:] Yeah.
[Emily:] That’s amazing. [Dr. McDowell:] The longest continuous history
that I’ve done this for is on Kangaroo Island and it’s continuously collecting owl pellets
for 150,000 years. [Emily:] Are you serious? [Dr. McDowell:] Yeah, just piled on top of
each other all the way through time. [Emily:] So how has this information that
you’ve learned about all of the species and diversity of these caves from
relatively long time ago – how has that changed in the last 200 years
since Europeans have been in Australia? Dr. McDowell:] Oh, that’s a great question. Europeans in Australia were, I think justifiably, more interested in feeding their family by clearing a heap of land and planting wheat than they were in what little animals used to live there. You can learn just how much damage
we did to the environment by comparing fossils that are maybe
only 300 or 400 years old to what should be living in the area today. My opinion is that those young fossils are a much better
indicator of what should be living in a park or a place today, than the animals
that are living there right now. [Emily:] Ultimately, what do you do with
this information, now that you know what is in a particular cave or a region? [Dr. McDowell:] Well, we can use it to
work out a number of different things. From very young fossils we can work out
what should be in the national parks, typically in Australia there will be three or
four native mammals in a national park, but if you look at the fossil record, there’s 20 to 25 native mammals
that should be there. We can also use it to look at how climates
have changed through time and then we can take that information that
we’ve learned from conditions in the past being represented by different animals, and we can then make predictive
models to ask ourselves, ‘Well, if the climate conditions were like this, what animal would be expected to live in the area in the future?’ And that is in terms of conservation
management really important. You know, we can spend a million dollars
on a park and make it beautiful and find that’s it’s only actually useful
for a hundred years. If I’m doing conservation, I think we should get at least
a thousand years out of our million bucks. [Emily:] What kind of challenges have you run into
when trying to advocate for rodents? Because they’re not exactly the most,
uh, charismatic species… I mean people can get behind saving pandas
and tigers, but when you tell them that there’s a rare rat living in an area,
how do they respond? [Dr. McDowell:] Yeah, so it is difficult
to champion a rodent, but it’s really easy to sell climate change. These little animals live for only a couple of years,
so they’re very sensitive to their environment. And they move with the climate
and sort of habitat envelope, by that I mean, you know, if you’ve got
an overlayer of the right kind of plants, and the right temperature, the right kind of soil, all of those factors play into where an animal will live, and as climate changes, they move. They also do things that help the
community to be supported, so some might cache seeds and
forget where they buried them so some of those seeds will germinate
and grow into plants that had the best possible start, because
that will put them to moist fluffy ground because it’s been dug up. Some might shift fungal spores
around, which help other plants… Fungus often grows on plant roots and it’s much
better at collecting water than tree roots are. So without a lot of these animals that dig, you lose a lot of that functionality, you know, in a community, and all of the ecology is damaged by that. And it makes it less stable, more
easily broken by climate change. And also, it means that if you want to
keep it, you have to spend more money. So, much better to start with something
that’s good and well supported, and, you know, put a little bit of money
into it and keep it ticking over than to go, ‘Oh no, we’ve only got 13 more
northern hairy-nosed wombats left, we have to throw millions of dollars at it
to make sure it doesn’t go extinct.’ [Emily:] ‘Oh noo!’ It’s kinda late at that point.
[Dr. McDowell:] Yeah. [Emily:] So this cave deposit material,
is this primarily unique to Australia, or is there a chance that there would be
stuff like this found in any country? [Dr. McDowell:] That’s a really good question. The animals in different countries change but very
much the processes stay the same. Anywhere you’ve got cave-dwelling birds of prey, the barn owl particularly lives in every
continent of the world except Antarctica, so nearly everyone’s got one, the animals that they’re capable of killing quickly and in every continent, they’re piling them in caves for us. [Emily:] So there’s probably a cave near you.
[Dr. McDowell:] Yeah. Quite right. [Emily:] Full of raptor pellets. Just for the pickin’.

96 thoughts on “How Bird Vomit Helps Us Understand History

  1. this is incredibly interesting! I've always found owl pellets interesting to dissect (even when my parents had told me not to) so seeing how it can contain history is rather exciting.

  2. Humans- The most invasive of all mammals, screwing things up since the dawn of civilization. It's a good thing some of us have taken the time to try to undo our ancestors' mistakes.

  3. Whoever is responsible for the lighting and color/camera work when Emily is speaking in front of the shelves…nicely done. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  4. Awesome video!! Can you make a video with tips about how to identify birds in the wild? I live in central Minnesota and I always try to identify wildlife when I hike but I struggle with birds. They are so small and so quick!

  5. Great video! Have they been able to find out what small mammal has suffered the most due to European settlement? Is it even still around?

  6. Awesome video!
    I only got to dissect one owl pellet when I was a kid, but in it I found an almost fully intact rodent skull which I kept for many years. Until my sister's dog snuck into my room last year and ate it. The jerk. I hope to someday have the opportunity to dissect more 🙂

  7. Brought to you by, Hedwig mail service
    we deliver anything to anywhere From Wizarding world to wherever you are, specially
    the cupboard under the stairs even without writing an address.
    note: 1. please give a tip to the mailing owl (they love live mice)
    2. don't make them angry or reject their mail or you'll regret it!

  8. i opened owl pellets while studying biology and thought it was really cool (although counting teeths and looking at teeth-shapes is really tidius). but i didn't know about these places where there are so many pellets from such a long time ago – really cool!
    emily your videos are always great, and they are such good quality! ❤️

  9. So why don't other continents do this as well? I know that other countries are also experiencing rapid extinction of creatures, so why don't their scientists do this sort of thing?

  10. It's so nice to watch shows on youtube with people that really care about science, not news reporters just REGURGITATING facts.

    Don't mind me just trying to SQUEAK in an owl pellet joke

  11. I was about to point out that an echidna is a monotreme and not a mammal, but I looked it up to make sure, and it turns out that monotremes are mammals.

  12. I am so interested in this! I dissected owl pellets in second grade and I always wondered where they were found!!! How can this be my job this is so cool

  13. I didn't know there were rodents in Australia before Europeans got there, I thought it was all marsupials, except for the bats.

  14. I was really expecting that owl at the end to throw up a pellet like "NBD, just making historical records for you fools." <drops mic and flies away>

  15. I ordered an owl pellet online years ago and dug through it some. I found a whole bunch of mouse bones, including the skull! Some of those bones are so tiny, it blows your mind!

  16. Science of "gross" is fun! Probably read this before but the blood and guts and stink of the early videos were magic. Be fun to see more. My 3 girls (all under 8) would like to see a brain scoop doing brain scoop things.

  17. I never dissected a owl pellets when I was in school but after watching this video I wish I did and found out what owls ate but I did dissected a frog and it was cool.

  18. Back in high school in Biology class we were given owl pellets and we had to break them down, sort out the bones, and glue them onto an index card in the shape of the rodent we found. Then we had to identify the rodent. This was an extremely fun project (had a few fun ones really) and I think I still have that indexed rodent around somewhere…

  19. As a New Zealander, this is interesting but strange. A lot of these rodents including possums are considered pests in NZ because they eat native bird eggs. You might go on a bush walk and find possum traps all over the place designed to kill possums. And we aren't allowed hamsters in NZ which I found disappointing because hamsters are cute. I guess the ecosystem is just different here.

  20. Dream job, studying bird vomit, not even kidding, it's in the top list. Others are paleoart, and being the cgi morph suit person.

  21. Cliche to talk about woman science presenter's appearance on video's aside, I freaking love your shirt!! The acorns are so cute. Also I wish I had a chance to dissect owl pellets in school, that would have been the best day ever.

  22. I used to be a spelunker. Pristine undisturbed caves are getting extremely hard to find. Once discovered by humans, they quickly become trashed and any evidence or formations destroyed.

  23. In rural Oregon grade school, we got to search for and eventually dissect owl pellets. So many teeny tiny rodent bones. It was quite literally awesome in causing me such awe.

  24. Oh the owl earrings are exactly the right brain scoop touch. How do you narrate academic information and keep smiling? Love your videos. Never miss one.

  25. If you're reading this and like science and animal news check out Jason millers channel! He's super devoted and in my opinion, doesn't get nearly the views he deserves

  26. hey I participated in a study exactly like this at the Santa Barbara museum af natural history. using owl pellets from barn owl cave it's the exact same type of study I'm glad there are more people around the world doing this.

  27. Hey im doing a project on science communicators!!!!
    anyone want to help?
    just tell me how you became a science communicator eg your science backround and passion for SCIENCE!!!!!
    THANKS COOL SCIENCE PEOPLE

    ( dudes this is the only way i can keep class projects interesting, and asking cool people on the internet seemed like the best choice XD)

  28. there have been times when my vomit has helped me understand history. like when hung over "oh yeah, I did all my cheetos last night! and spaghetti!!"

  29. Shoutout to all the nerds out there who are now fondly remembering their first owl pellet dissection! (And those looking it up to find their own now!) Love this crew here!

  30. Forget caves. You don't even need caves. Just find areas that raptors commonly roost on, and look under them. For school, I did a project with a team, where we looked for and collected raptor pellets from underneath trees in the local wildlife area. Then we extracted all the useful bones and even some feathers from them, and then took them to an expert in the university to help us identify the species based on the bones (mostly jaws and teeth). I think it was about 60% of the species we identified were voles.

  31. When I was in middle school, me and my friend would have "dissecting parties" where we just dissected a bunch of owl pellets! It was so fun! Once we found one pellet with four skulls in it! Vole, mole, and two field mice. Mmmm… tasty.

  32. Owl pellets are cool; there used to be people who sold kits of a couple of pellets and some tweezers. I'm lucky, my dad keeps birds of prey so no shortage of pellets to pick apart!

  33. Watching your videos sure is a HOOT! I wonder WHO discovered Owl Pellets! Are your videos scripted or do you just WING it!

  34. When I was in first grade my music class sang a song called "Owl Pellets." Mainly I remember chanting "Owl pellets, owl pellets, owl pellets…" and thinking they and the song were really cool. I guess I've always had a fondness for owl pellets as a result.

  35. Emily, don't hold the owl pellets so casually for that long damn it! You'll forget what your holding and begin to snack on them. The owls threw them up for a reason.

    There are many challenges that one faces when advocating for rodents. The best mind to pick for expert level advice is Sean Spicer. Another reputable person is Hilary Clinton's defense attorney. Between those two, you can gather enough knowledge to save every rat in the country.

    Ayn Rand makes me vomit enough to revivify any university's history department. Oh, the gems you can unearth. You do have rubber boots right? It's a lot of vomit!

    I'm gonna rage watch your videos. Maybe not today but soon. I'm just kidding myself by going slow. It's like chocolate chip cookies. You know what I'm talkin' bout. You eat four out of the sleeve and cover the package up like your done. Take a seat on the couch. Then you go back to inspect the condition of the remaining amount in that sleeve, cause it could have gotten mold by the time you left it two minutes ago. Weeeeeell now you need some energy to make your trip back to the couch. Can't fuel up on apples THAT WOULD BE DUMB! The package IS open. Yeah, just power your trip back with the rest of the sleeve, cause if you don't you could pass out on the dinning room floor. Next day, package of cookies, DONESVILLE!

  36. Bird vomit too? I'm familiar with bird entrails as determiners of successors to the throne or something. Do birds even vomit, really?

  37. Whenever I was in third grade, we took a field trip to Skyranch in Texas and one activity we did was dissect owl pellets. It was very interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *