Pollen, pooh and the extinction of mammoths

Categories: Forensic palynology, News, Sciblogs

One of my work-heads is as a Palynologist, which means I study pollen, spores and other microscopic material that remain in sediments after they’ve been chemically treated to remove extraneous material.  For forensic work, we might be limited to sediment scraped from the knee of a pair of trousers or perhaps pollen collected from the heads of cannabis plants, but any sort of sediment can be examined for pollen.
For geological/archaeological samples, lake sediments and peats are the best in terms of preservation state, abundance and variety.  It is therefore extremely heartening to see that palynology has been able to help in determining the extinction mechanism of mammoths and other large mammals during the last Ice Age, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago (depending on one’s global location) – see Mammoth dung unravels extinction. The study indicates a gradual decline in large mammal numbers, not a catastrophic extinction a la the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary 65 million years ago.
Scientifically, it’s an interesting study but from a general perspective I still find it strange that people are surprised that the large mammals are probably more than just a pretty addition to an African landscape but have actually been significant in it’s development. I’m pretty sure David Attenborough’s known that for years.
It’s also reassuring that analysing excrement can add so much information to our knowledge – an archaeologist I know has spent years analysing coprolites from Maori sites. It’s fascinating what we can learn from pooh.

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Forensic Scientist