fossilised urine from a small African mammal helps us perceive previous environments

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If you’re allergic to pollen, you might be more likely to curse the existence of those microscopic particles. You’re not alone: as much as 30% of the world’s inhabitants suffers from hay fever, which is usually pushed by pollen allergy symptoms. Shifting international climates are more likely to push that determine even larger.

Nonetheless, pollen represents some of the highly effective instruments to uncover the character of previous environmental change.

I’m the pinnacle of the Palaeoecology Laboratory at Nelson Mandela College in South Africa. My analysis focuses on unravelling the secrets and techniques of historic environments and ecosystems by analyzing fossil pollen grains. These tiny time capsules maintain a wealth of details about the earth’s previous. They assist scientists to reconstruct ecosystems, observe local weather change and perceive the evolution of flora.

However it may be troublesome to supply pollen deposits in arid areas. That’s as a result of such deposits are sometimes present in massive lakes, that are in brief provide in southern Africa. That’s the place an unlikely scientific ally enters the image: the fossilised urine of a small mammal, the rock hyrax (South Africans name them “dassies”).

Trying again

Pollen grains are extremely sturdy as a result of they’re made from an natural substance (known as sporopollenin) that could be very immune to decay. Pollen is launched into the air, typically in massive portions, and might choose surfaces like lakes, and change into preserved in sediment deposits over 1000’s, and even thousands and thousands, of years.

Within the lab, we study the pollen present in these deposits utilizing a microscope. By figuring out the several types of pollen grains discovered throughout the completely different layers (representing completely different time slices) we are able to reconstruct the world’s vegetation historical past. Crops develop below particular weather conditions: as an illustration, desert crops can develop below low rainfall situations whereas forest crops want excessive quantities of rainfall. So we are able to make inferences concerning the local weather on the time that the pollen was integrated into the deposit.

A rather chubby small rodent with dark brown fur and protruding front teeth regards the photographer.
The fossilised urine of rock hyraxes helps within the examine of pollen.
Kiev Victor

As I’ve stated, southern Africa’s arid climates imply there are only a few massive lakes within the area. This makes it a problem to supply deposits that adequately protect pollen inside them over lengthy durations of time. That’s the place fossilised dassie urine is available in.

These sticky deposits known as “middens” accumulate in rock crevices in mountainous areas over 1000’s to tens of 1000’s of years and include superbly preserved pollen grains. As additionally they include numerous different forms of proof (equivalent to geochemical information) and could be precisely dated, they symbolize probably the most priceless archive of previous local weather information in southern Africa. The oldest middens we’ve labored with date again 50,000 years.

Historic websites

The analysis my lab conducts, specializing in harnessing the facility of the standard pollen grain and utilising distinctive archives equivalent to hyrax middens, is strongly multidisciplinary. It attracts collectively components from botany, geography, geology, climatology and archaeology.

We’re at the moment producing fossil pollen information from a number of websites throughout the Cape Fold Belt mountains of South Africa. For instance, we now have a midden sequence that covers the final 6,000 years from the Baviaanskloof within the Jap Cape province. The fossil pollen from this sequence exhibits that there was a dramatic shift in vegetation about 3,300 years in the past, pushed by a big fireplace occasion and elevated temperatures. We’re hoping to publish this analysis quickly.

This data gives baselines of variability in pure programs and may also help inform present conservation efforts throughout the Baviaanskloof, which is a biodiversity hotspot.

One other challenge that we’re concerned in is centred on the archaeological excavation inside South Africa’s southern Cape area at a website known as Boomplaas Cave. By utilizing the fossil pollen inside hyrax middens discovered throughout the neighborhood of Boomplaas Cave, we hope to supply the environmental context to the archaeological document which may also help to decipher how early people responded to local weather change.

And looking out ahead

We aren’t solely working throughout the realm of the previous: as pollen is among the most important sources of allergy symptoms you will need to monitor the kinds and quantities of pollen at the moment current within the air we breathe. My lab is a part of the South African Pollen Monitoring community and we generate pollen information for town of Gqeberha within the Jap Cape province.

This initiative focuses on analysing pollen captured within the air throughout a number of completely different components of South Africa and guaranteeing that this data is publicly obtainable. This challenge is especially essential as, resulting from local weather change, pollen seasons are lengthening and allergenic pollen is rising.


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