Posted: Oct 12, 2010 5:02 pm
by HughMcB
Ancient Animal Urine Provides Insight Into Climate Change

ScienceDaily (Oct. 12, 2010) — Scientists at the University of Leicester are using an unusual resource to investigate ancient climates -- prehistoric animal urine.

The animal in question is the rock hyrax, a common species in countries such as Namibia and Botswana. They look like large guinea pigs but are actually related to the elephant. Hyraxes use specific locations as communal toilets, some of which have been used by generations of animals for thousands of years. The urine crystallises and builds up in stratified accumulations known as 'middens', providing a previously untapped resource for studying long-term climate change.

Funding from the Leverhulme Trust and, more recently, the European Research Council has allowed the Leicester group to join an international team led by Dr Brian Chase, from the Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution de Montpellier, to study these unique deposits. With Dr Chase, Drs Andrew Carr and Arnoud Boom from the University of Leicester's Department of Geography are engaged in exploring novel records of past environmental change preserved within the middens.

Their work has recently been published in the journals Quaternary Research, Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology and Geology.

"In order to study past environmental changes scientists typically acquire samples from deposits laid down in bogs or lakes, within which organic matter, which can be dated is preserved," explains Dr Carr. "But in dryland environments such as southern Africa this isn't possible. Fortunately it seems that hyrax urine preserves organic matter over timescales of tens of thousands of years, which provides remarkable insights into past environmental changes within the hyrax habitat."

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Image
Dr. Brian Chase is abseiling to sample a midden.
(Credit: University of Leicester)