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  • Michael covers science news related to scientific employment and training at Science Careers.
 

ScienceShot: Ancient Pee Provides Clues to Africa's Past

16 February 2013 10:50 am
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University of Leicester

BOSTON—When it comes to peering into Africa's climate past, the ancient homes of hyraxes are number one. Paleoclimatologists typically dig up muddy core samples and analyze their pollen content for clues to long-ago weather, but parts of southern and central Africa are too dry to preserve such evidence. Enter the rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) (inset), a furry mammal that looks like a large groundhog but is actually a distant cousin of the elephant. Brian Chase, a geographical scientist at the University of Montpellier in France, turned to urine accretions left by the animals thousands of years ago; hyrax colonies use the same rock shelters for generation after generation, depositing pollen, calcium remnants, charcoal particles, stable isotopes, and other detritus in their urine (black splotches on rock in main image). Most climate models predict arid conditions in southern Africa 12,000 years ago, but the pollen content of hyrax urine from that period indicates that they ate grasses, which flourish in wetter conditions Chase, who reported his findings here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW), believes his method can be used to give researchers a wealth of data to improve their models of Africa's paleohistory. "You can turn a 2-meter pile of pee into a very nice section which you can bring back to the lab," he told the audience. "These are very high-resolution records."

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