The deposits collected in a distant relative of the elephant’s communal toilets are challenging some long-held beliefs about the climate of the Earth’s dry regions. That’s not to equate existing science with animal dung, or even cite some quasi-mystical prediction method. Instead, Brian Chase from the Institute of Evolutionary Sciences in Montpellier, France, and his colleagues commenced a five-year European funded project on Monday to study the chemical composition of the toilets or “middens” of the rock hyrax.
The possibility of using middens for scientific analysis comes because populations of hyraxes use the same ones for thousands of years. However, despite being part of the same family as the elephant, hyraxes look more like guinea pigs, and live in locations that present already unusual-sounding research with even more improbable challenges. “With few exceptions middens are found high on cliffs, often under large overhangs, which makes access particularly difficult,” Chase explains. “Add to this an assortment of power tools, loose rock, poor protection, and the logistics of rigging a system that will allow you to safely remove and lower a 50 kg block of dense, but surprisingly fragile urine, and it is fair to say that the entire enterprise takes a rather special skill-set.” Read the rest of this entry »