Dassie dung explains climate change

Heaps of dassie dung accumulated over millennia are proving a valuable tool in understanding climate change, according to a University of Cape Town researcher.

So valuable, in fact, that the European Research Commission has allocated a 1.4 million-euro grant to allow scientists to dig deeper, so to speak.

Professor Mike Meadows of the department of environmental and geographical science, said that entire colonies of dassies urinated and defecated in the same spot, year after year.

Over as much as tens of thousands of years, these sticky dunghills (some of them the size of a small car) trapped isotopes and pollen in chronologically stratified layers.

In a lab, a generous chunk of hardened midden could be carbon dated, while pollen was cross-checked to identify the plants that produced it.

Most accurate data from dung

The result, said Meadows, was one of the most accurate and high-resolution historical records of changing climate and vegetation patterns known to researchers.

UCT researchers had been digging into dassie dunghills for some time, but had so far been limited to colonies in the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Namibia.

With the EU funding, they would be able to extend their activities to the Eastern Cape, North West Province, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

This "archive" could provide high-resolution data for models used to forecast future climates.

So far, findings from middens at Spitskop, Namibia, had shown a progressive drying trend in that region over the last few thousand years.

Material from the Cederberg in the Western Cape had revealed a markedly cooler and drier phase there after the end of the last glacial period, thought to be a response to changes in global ocean circulation.

(Sapa, October 2010)

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