New in paleoclimatology: pseudo-rodent piss as climate proxy

Here’s that great story about Rock Hyrax urine as climate proxy you’ve always wanted to read.

From the University of Leicester news: Ancient urinary deposits provide a unique insight into Africa’s prehistoric climate change.

That great story about Rock Hyrax urine you've always wanted to read

image: Wikipedia 

The Rock Hyrax is a remarkable animal. Native to dry, rocky environments throughout Africa, you would be forgiven for assuming that it is a large rodent, with its short legs, short neck, rounded ears and overall resemblance to a particularly large guinea pig or a coypu minus a tail.

And yet, in defiance of expectations, the creature’s nearest living relatives are elephants and manatees. This in itself should be enough to make any research involving Rock Hyraxes worth reading.

But these furry fellows have a distinctive behaviour which, by good fortune, enables climatologists to study the environmental history of rocky areas where traditional techniques – such as taking a core – are not viable. Rock Hyraxes, it seems, are very particular about where they urinate and defecate. They like specific locations underneath rocky overhangs and generation after generation of Hyraxes will use that same spot – called a midden – over and over again. For literally thousands of years.

Some of these middens can date back 30,000 years or more. That’s the Stone Age. That’s actually the Upper Palaeolithic period!

The urine crystallises and what you end up with is a block of solid, stratified material which provides the sort of historical record that is otherwise impossible to find in these dry, rocky parts of the world. Within the midden is a record of Hyrax metabolytes as well as particles which have passed undigested through their systems (and the occasional bit of organic material that just happened to get blown there). These can be accurately dated, giving an indication of how the vegetation – and hence the climate – has changed over the millenia. And that’s what some researchers in our Department of Geography are looking into.

Just to be completely unambiguous about this:

Geographers at the University of Leicester are studying the prehistoric climate of southern Africa by examining lumps of thousand-year-old crystallised wee from something that looks like a rat but is actually more closely related to the dugong.

How brilliant is that?

Dr Andrew Carr and Dr Arnoud Boom from Leicester are part of an international team led by Dr Brian Chase from the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution de Montpellier. Funding for the research has been provided by the Leverhulme Trust and the European Research Council and papers on the topic have so far been published in Quaternary Research, in Geology and in the snappily named journal Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology.

Hyrax middens were first used by a South African palynologist named Louis Scott who naturally concentrated on their pollen content. The current team are the first scientists to study this extraordinary resource on a molecular level, examining animal metabolytes and plant biomarkers. Equipment at Leicester is being used to measure the bulk nitrogen and carbon isotope contents, and to identify individual plant and animal biomarkers. Colleagues in Belfast are able to accurately peg the age of a given sample using radiocarbon-dating techniques.

hyraxchase.jpg

Hyraxes are common creatures; indeed in some areas they are considered pests. Their middens are however pretty smelly, and these ancient urinary deposits can be tricky to reach. Fortunately, Dr Chase is an experienced rock climber – that’s him in the picture equipped with angle-grinder and gas mask (cutting this stuff kicks up a lot of dust that you really don’t want to breathe in). Initially samples were knocked off with a hammer and chisel but once it was realised that cut and polished middens were finely laminated, more care was taken to extract neat samples using a micro-drill.

Paleaoenvironmental knowledge of southern Africa, which encompasses countries such as Botswana and Namibia, has always been very fragmentary and largely reliant on ocean core records. The data from the Hyrax middens open up a whole new realm of research into how some of these dynamic environments have changed over 30,000 years or so. The next step is to compare this data with established models of climate change.

Rock Hyraxes have always been interesting to anyone with a fascination for zoology, not least because of their elephantine link which is a staple of ‘interesting animal facts’-type books. But their excretory habits, or rather the potential use of what they excrete, is now raising them to a whole new level of interest.

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83 thoughts on “New in paleoclimatology: pseudo-rodent piss as climate proxy

  1. Rock Hyraxes, it seems, are very particular about where they urinate and defecate. They like specific locations underneath rocky overhangs and generation after generation of Hyraxes will use that same spot – called a midden – over and over again.

    Hmm sounds like all the cats I have owned since I was a wee (no pun intended) lad.
    Egads my cat’s litter box is a climate proxy!

  2. Leicester isn’t the first public university to take the piss in climate science, but at lest they’re being frank about it!

  3. Leicester isn’t the first public university to take the piss in climate science, but at least they’re being frank about it!

  4. I can see it now “midden network used to prove……” the question is will it be used in a normal or inverted fashion. Sorry for the sarc response but Mann has so polluted the midden heap.

  5. everytime I think it cant get sillier..it does
    and I bet they find warming and deforestation that suddenly increased with the age of coal.. just like every other study lately, agw funded ones anyway

  6. “Ancient urinary deposits…”
    Oh Lord… Where do I begin?
    “Your Majesty shines out like a shaft of gold while all around is dark.”
    It was one of Wilde’s…

  7. Clearly this study is little more than a steaming heap of dung waiting to be discovered centuries later and hailed as proof of global warming. It doesn’t hold up to the smell test. It reeks of wee. Clearly someone is trying to make his mark.
    I’m pissed.

  8. The next step is to compare this data with established models* of climate change.
    *And don’t forget Mann’s Hokey Stick!

  9. Anthony wrote, “Here’s that great story about Rock Hyrax urine as climate proxy you’ve always wanted to read.”
    Thanks so much. You’ve made my day. I can now take my nap in peace.

  10. Packrats in the American Southwest have similar habits and middens to ROck Hyrax’s. It would be interesting to compare data from these middens to tree ring chronologies

  11. What did one Rock Hyrax say to the other Rock Hyrax at the Midden?
    “Those global warming climatologists are just whizzes, aren’t they?”

  12. Okay, so climate change doesn’t seem to be a threat to hyraxes. The same family has been piddling at the same spot for 30,000 years. Usually behaviours have some form of biologic benefit to a creature. I wonder what that can be? Anyone? Also, if the hyrax can be traced back to some ancestor of the elephant (usually that is what is meant by “related” in zoology) that would have been as interesting a story as the paleopeepeeology. Perhaps its memory of the midden location shows a remarkable memory – a strong trait of elephants. Finally, I would think the DNA would be an interesting study – just to be sure the peepiles are from the same families. Other species make a point of peeing on each others peepees.

  13. Are they testing DNA over time for evoloutionary data? That seems like a unique opportunity as well.
    Really cool discovery.

  14. “Hyrax middens were first used by a South African palynologist named Louis Scott…”
    Disgusting.

  15. “The next step is to compare this data with established models of climate change.” What on earth for? The question is are these established models of climate change reliable or is a pile of pee more reliable, there is no way of knowing by comparing them to each other.

  16. Perhaps I need to explain in more detail post I just made:
    Renown australian solar scientist Dr. K.G. McCracken from the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland, in 2007 published paper:
    Changes in the cosmic ray and heliomagnetic components of space climate, 1428–2005, including the variable occurrence of solar energetic particle events
    McCracken 2007 paper
    Major result of McCracken investigation based on 10Be dating is:
    the estimated annual average heliospheric magnetic field strength near Earth, 1428–2005, based on the inter-calibrated cosmic ray record as shown in Fig. 2 on p. 1073 (4 of 8).
    Initially, I compared his results to CET (Central England temperature) anomaly and got a rather a surprising correlation all the way up to 1950:
    CET-McC
    According to the prevailing science two variables should not be strongly correlated, and that is confirmed by post 1950 data, which is based on space measurements. However, the heliospheric magnetic field strength is closely correlated to the sunspont count number.
    Since the CETs are also correlated to another indicator (North Atlantic Precursor – NAP, on which I am currently working and will have more to say in the near future), it is of some interest that McCracken data (which in final analysis is only inverted 10Be record, adjusted for geomagnetic dipole variation), contains as a strong component as shown in my calculations of the NAP, result of physical processes not related directly or as after fact of the galactic cosmic rays..
    If this component is taken out with couple of dating uncertainties ‘corrected’ than we find that McCracken data now makes perfectly good sense, which originally did not.
    SSN-McC
    Consequence is serious: radioactive isotopes dating calculations need reassessment.

  17. this story reminds me of the lady anthropologist who went into a cave in the eastern United States (Kentucky, I believe) that had been a huge tourist attraction for almost 100 years, but nobody had noticed the human stools laying petrified along the cave walls. She found them, with a flashlight, and began examining them. Her research completely changed our picture of Stone Age Americans – their diet was completely different than previously believed, and lots of assumptions had been made on the basis of those previous assumptions. So the whole picture of prehistoric Americans changed because of a curious lady with a flashlight.
    Whenever you think you know something, you better think again.

  18. Well, Gareth, excavations in York have uncovered a fair amount of Viking faeces, so these may well be able to provide us with some insight into the MWP.

  19. Juanita,
    and then they discovered partially digested MacDonalds fries in the stools and decided that all those tourists were just being nasty.

  20. Now this is what you call SCIENCE!!!! Hope they don’t find a computer program for it and stop all this healthy outdoor recreation. Serious, now isn’t this more interesting than tweeking some stupid computer program and pumping in a bunch of meaningless data and guessing what the climate in 2110 is going to be like? If someone says they’re a scientist and doesn’t have a tan, don’t believe them.

  21. Thank you so much for this I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. Some of the comments then set me off again.
    What do you tell your kids when they ask what you do at work/or can you please come into school to tell my class what you study?
    As to what it could tell us of the ancient climate that won’t be as much fun!

  22. vukcevic says:
    October 13, 2010 at 7:56 am
    Initially, I compared his results to CET (Central England temperature) anomaly and got a rather a surprising correlation all the way up to 1950:
    http://www.vukcevic.talktalk.net/CET-McC.htm
    “It’s the Sun…” then?
    Your observation relates with the fact that when a “designated” (“we” love giving names) field changes it affects the other “designated” fields, as in the general equation of gases PV=nRT, where an increase in “temperature” (other fabulous “name”)decreases “density” (gravity in the end), and where interactions among these “designated” fields are intimately related among them, so as electricity with magnetism=90 degrees apart (Oersted law) and with Gravity= 180 degrees apart. Thus we should observed which “field” changed the first to know the “suspect”, as I think:
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/10/13/klotzbach-and-gray-final-2010-two-week-hurricane-forecast/#comment-506296

  23. juanita says: “…the whole picture of prehistoric Americans changed because of a curious lady with a flashlight.”
    Was that implement a coprolight?

  24. I believe packrat middens were examined as a part of the environmental impact statement done for the Nuculear Waste Site.
    Bless anyone who actually goes out into the field to collect data. We need more Johnny Number 5s and less CRU hall lurkers who are afraid of being seen in the sunlight.

  25. INGSOC…
    “It was one of Wilde’s”
    Let’s hope the researchers don’t also discover that the poor hyraxes (or “hyraces.” Really, I looked it up!) also had a dose of the clap.

  26. Have they produced any insights yet into what were the physical conditions/climate changes over that time?
    If the urine cores show great variations, they also show the adaptability of the Rock Hyrax. The fact that they stay in one place long enough to have mineralized urine deposits suggests that things have stayed pretty much the same.
    Scatology is not necessarily a joke. I think it is quite marvelous that science knows so much about the Rock Hyrax – whether or not its pee can tell us anything about climate.

  27. Anthony,
    I haven’t laughed so hard in a while. The “pseudo-rodent piss” line was great!
    I can see the paper title now, Piss off of Habitual Rodents Related to Elephants Vindicate Money Pissed Away in Tree Ring Studies. It will be difficult however to provide absolute confirmation of the Hockey Stick Graph since the Piss tends to flow downhill and find the lowest level. However, implementation of the “trick” will allow for multiple proxies to be spliced together. This will become problematic at the interface between the Piss and Rings. Adequate isolation will be needed possibly using deleted emails since by definition they are disposable.

  28. “Palynologist”? I would have thought that was like the guy who moved into the house next to the ex-Alaskan Gov in order to do research for a book.

  29. Enneagram says: October 13, 2010 at 8:49 am
    …………..
    Not with that particular correlation, 10Be data is only accurate since 1960s when satellite observations become available (and subsequent CET correlation fails), prior to then McCracken’s results needs correction
    , as I have done for the Dalton minimum
    Of course in everything there is a bit of alphabet soup: SSN, GCR, 10Be, C14, GMF, g (for gravity) etc, but also NAP.

  30. To the authors of this “research”.
    On my last fishing trip in Canadian wilderness, I’ve discovered old, abandoned cabin with the s..t house nearby. Because the location is only accessible by a float plane, I’m sure that the s..t is in undisturbed and pristine condition, thus can be used as proxy for temperature reconstruction ( I did not see any Stevenson’s screens in the area )
    Fell free to use this info on the application for your next research grant

  31. If you can assume that no researcher is going to put his name in the public arena for spelunking around inside a small animal’s toilet unless he really thinks there’s something to be learned, then I’ll give these folks the benefit of the doubt.
    As long as they don’t try to come back and tell us that the hyrax changed its elimination habits since 1960 and they’re going to have to use kitty litter for the last fifty years instead…

  32. This is really interesting research; more power to the adventurous Dr. Chase. What could be more welcome than new paleo-climatic and biological data from an area of the world where such information is scarce?
    It is really a shame to couple this basic science to the politically-contentious debate over ‘climate change’. For one thing it leads otherwise rational folks to disparage the whole project with snarky comments and complaints about possible taxpayer funding. Lord knows there are many less worthy studies that our tax dollars are enabling!
    Whether or not it happened here, it is perhaps more of a shame that researchers studying ancient environments have to make their work relevant to GCMs in order to get funding.
    /Mr Lynn

  33. This is not new. Packrat middens have been studied for decades in the US desert Southwest and hyrax middens have also been previously studied.
    See the web page below for discussions of these studies and references to previous packrat and hyrax midden studies.
    http://gec.cr.usgs.gov/data/midden/

  34. I lost my wonder of excrement cleaning out a barn decades ago. But this is science at the molecular level and who knows what they will find.
    Is he wearing a lab coat?

  35. I’ll suggest that Mann do some field work in bat caves.
    How about the white cliffs of dover.
    Why stop at rat piss when we also have bat poo and bird poo.

  36. Seems like a wonderful bit of science work.
    Presumably the urine deposits can be carbon dated and some isotope ratio used to estimate dryness.
    Winkling out a robust climate series out of this notwithstanding the numerous confounding factors should provide work for a small legion of PhD students.

  37. While Dr. Chase and colleagues are “remodeling the loo” there is probably a very long line of anxious, cross legged, constipated Rock Hyrax’s lined up across the desert. Think they will need therapy?

  38. Medieval Warm Period in the SH? Could be interesting! But by the geography department – probably find the capital of Hyraxia was built on the confluence of two streams.
    While I am here, polistra says:
    October 13, 2010 at 7:04 am
    “Hmm. Rock Hyrax … wasn’t she a Hustler centerfold back in the good old ’70s?”
    I think you are correct and if my memory serves me, she was followed by Crystal Meth & Sharia Law on successive months.

  39. [SNIP- sorry, but that comment will turn into flame bait all over the web at pro AGW sites, while funny, I’m not going to post it here, because it paints AGW proponents unfairly with a broad brush – Anthony]

  40. In the future there will appear studies on the relation of climate change with bed wetting activities, caused by the current ingestion of a beverage known in prehistoric times as “Kool-Aid”. 🙂

  41. “The Rock Hyrax is a remarkable animal. Native to dry, rocky environments throughout Africa, you would be forgiven for assuming that it is a large rodent, with its short legs, short neck, rounded ears and overall resemblance to a particularly large guinea pig or a coypu minus a tail.”
    Gee, thankee kindly! I always like to hear about my relatives back home.

    Just to be completely unambiguous about this:
    Geographers at the University of Leicester are studying the prehistoric climate of southern Africa by examining lumps of thousand-year-old crystallised wee from something that looks like a rat but is actually more closely related to the dugong.
    How brilliant is that?

    Brilliant!!! Have a Guinness. I always said WUWT was full of piss and vinegar. (Still looking for the vinegar…)
    – Rock

  42. This is by no means a new technique. It has been used for decades with packrat middens in the southwest. It is superior to e. g. pollen analysis because the packrats collect a very good sample of the surrounding vegetation, including species which produce little pollen and are therefore underrepresented in pollen counts.
    If one has a large enough sample of the flora from a particular time and place it is usually possible to determine the climate (or at least the temperature of the warmest and coldest months) with fair precision since the climatic envelopes of the plants are well known. The uncertainty is typically on the order of plus or minus 2-3 degrees F.

  43. Digging in Anasazi Indian toilets, it was discovered that the war between the Wadders and Folders was raging even in those times.

  44. Wee is not something to be sniffed at! Hhave you ever been to Pompeii. Now, that was place to be in (at pre Vesuvius time I mean), they had pubs there where drinks were served for free, with a large pissoir, where customers were expected to return compliments, and so accumulated liquid was used for leather tanning and other ‘industrial’ purposes.
    Wee is also good disinfectant, if you have an injury and no other disinfectant at hand, wee will do the job.
    It is said that Gandhi consumed regularly jars of his own.

  45. Dassie (hyrax) skins, when properly tanned and stitched skin-to-skin with fur on the inside AND outside, make the very best karosses which double-up as really warm bedding!
    Now the kleintjies are helping science! Amazing.

  46. tty:
    I agree, but pollen count can be used any-where in the world where plants grow. Animals and people are usually very choosy in what food they eat, so that can also skew results in plant count. One must also check the soil at that level to determine any soil deficiency that would effect plant growth, etc.

  47. I am really stumped as to what relationship hyrax piss deposits could have to climate!
    As inaccurate as they are as a proxy, at least there is something resembling logic behind dendrology (although there are so many complications that I don’t buy the results peddled by Briffa & Co.)
    Urine is very biodegradable, and the degree of ambient moisture, temperature etc. would influence this. I would expect the drift of archeological results would be so severe, that all a researcher would likely obtain would be some rather smelly hands and ruined pants.

  48. So is this where grad students who don’t toe the AGW line are sent until they repent and write a paper linking the midden mundane to the carbon forced sublime?

  49. Why the heck are anachronistic geographers doing paleobiological/botany/carbon dating work. I guess they have nothing left to do since the world turned out to be round and meticulously measured. They had a temporary foray into economics with stuff like they grow coffee in Brazil etc. that school kids had to memorize. Geography, once a grand discipline when they were trying to determine if the world was flat or round and became hotter as you went south into hell’s fires. The map has since been completed and the old Geoid is somewhat pear-shaped as it turns out. Does Leicester also have an alchemy department where they study the four elements? Give geography a decent burial.

  50. This is hardly new. Those interested in their world read this years ago. No deniers yet.
    Now I have to click on Climate Progress. I can’t let the Tony claim more hits, even if that’s a poor metric.
    REPLY: Thanks and with that comment, your pettiness shines brightly for all the world to see. – Anthony

  51. I guess it’s a good thing for science that the Rock Hyrax doesn’t have the same potty habits as our two miniature dachshunds who have to find a new place to go – every time.

  52. I do paleo and modern poop (fish bones therein) and I happen to manage just fine at cocktail parties, thank you very much. It just takes some panache.
    I have to take care to wear washable fabrics, however – to take care of the inevitable spray that ensues when asked what I do and I respond “I do s&#t.”

  53. re: SNIP
    ———-
    Yeah, I figured that was a bit over the line—I would loved to have seen Josh draw it up —but I don’t think I was the only to visualize it 😉

  54. Environmental interest in animal wastes is not new. Twenty-five years ago, I received a batch of monster helicopter service bills for a hydroelectric project we were developing in Washington State. When I queried the development manager, he gleefully reported we were being forced under the terms of our environmental study to collect “goat scat” (turds) from the mountains surrounding our proposed site. When I asked what goat eating habits had to do with my modest little project he was at a loss to explain. Apparently, some federal agency operative simply thought it would be interesting to find out what the goats were eating at my expense.
    In an unrelated aside, I was also forced to hire a guy who had been certified by the U.S. Forrest Service as being able to make the exact sound of a female spotted owl in heat. Each night, he sat on my proposed plant site and did his “hoot”. If any horny male owls had responded, it would not have been “Mr. Hoot” who got screwed; it would have been me. Such is the lot of those who attempt to construct any power plant in the U.S., renewable or not.
    Claude Harvey

  55. ” The Rock Hyrax is a remarkable animal. Native to dry, rocky environments throughout Africa…”
    ” Some of these middens can date back 30,000 years or more. That’s the Stone Age. That’s actually the Upper Palaeolithic period! ”
    A rock denizen that inhabits the same place for generations up to 30,000 years means not much has changed in that dry, rocky environment in 30,000 years. That is a statement all of its own. Just map out the dens and how long they have been around.
    No study needed.

  56. I can’t find a reference at this time but there is a small packrat with specially shaped teeth that will strip off the salt-enhanced outer layer of leaves to get at the inner (less salty parts). This fits with a couple of earlier comments regarding the long time frame of the adaptation of the plants and animals. The climate could not have changed very much over these tens of thousands of years. For those interested in such topics here is a site followed by a quote within a quote:
    http://www.desertusa.com/mag05/aug/food7.html
    The desert vegetation’s conquest has been tracked largely through the “analysis of plant and animal remains preserved in fossil packrat…middens [or nests],” according to the U. S. Geological Survey’s Land Use History of North America. (See Chapter 9, written by Craig D. Allen, Julio L. Betancourt and Thomas W. Swetnam.) “packrats gather nearby plant materials and accumulate them in dry caves and crevices; there, the plant and other debris [including animal remains] are cemented into large masses of crystallized urine (referred to as amberat), which can persevere for tens of thousands of years The extensive archive of sorted, identified, and dated [by the radiocarbon method] material represents the richest and best-documented source of plant remains in the world ”

  57. John F. Hultquist says:
    “The climate could not have changed very much over these tens of thousands of years. ”
    Actually the climate in the southwest has changed quite drastically over that time interval, and animals and plats have had to move long distances to track the changes. Remember that 15,000 years ago most of Utah was one huge lake (Lake Bonneville) and most of the intermontane valley in Nevada were lakes too. There was even large lakes in Death Valley and Panamint Valley.

  58. I know this isn’t the forum for this but:
    ‘……….And yet, in defiance of expectations, the creature’s nearest living relatives are elephants and manatees. This in itself should be enough to make any research involving Rock Hyraxes worth reading….’
    i Find the funny part to be the Hyrax evolutionary tree. The twists and turns biologists will have to make to explain the evolution of it should be interesting. I’m not a big fan of evolution. The stressing, epigenetic forces, and number of genetic changes required to drive the precursor of the Hyrax to morph into an elephant, a Hyrax and a Manatee, given the stability of Gene Regulatory Networks, firmly established even in the precursor of the Hyrax/elephant/Manatee, to be undermined by the stability of the behaviour of the Hyrax. Piles of Chopra aimed with strained consistent resolve over 30,000 years doesn’t sound like the environment to explain the driven changes resulting in the Elephant/Manatee offshoots. The environment sounds stable.
    And yet, in defiance of expectations, the creature’s nearest living relatives are elephants and manatees. This in itself should be enough to make any research involving Rock Hyraxes worth reading.

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