Rock Hyrax Urine Offers Clues About Climate Change


The rock hyrax is a sociable, furry mammal about the size of a guinea pig that can be found in Africa and Asia where it makes its nest in rock fissures.  What can this animal – or, more specifically, its pee – tell us about climate change?  More than you might think.  Thanks to the hyraxes’ habit of sticking close to home, living, eating, and, yes, urinating, in the same places where generations of rock hyraxes have urinated before them, their nests contain a wealth of information about long-term changes in the local environment.

The information can go back quite a ways.  Scientists have discovered hyrax urine samples that have been building up for as long as 55,000 years.  “Hyraxes use the same place to pee every day,” Brian M. Chase told the Guardian.  Chase works at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in France and is leading the hyrax project.  “The crucial point is that hyrax urine – which is thick and viscous and dries quickly – contains pollen, bits of leaves, grasses, and gas bubbles that provide a clear picture of the climate at the time.”

As unappealing as it may sound, this picture is extremely useful to scientists.  Southern Africa is a sensitive region and knowledge about long-term environmental change there remains scarce.  Data collected from these urine samples may fill in some crucial gaps, and help researchers make better predictions about how the area may be affected by climate change in the future.

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Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.