Key to species diversity buried in poo
Bat poo samples dating back tens of thousands of years are bound for Cairns in a bid to unravel the mystery of why so many Southeast Asian countries are rich with unique species despite once being one single landmass.
JCU School of Earth and Environmental Sciences Senior Research Associate Dr Chris Wurster has played a key role in pioneering the technology for using cave guano deposits and stable isotopes to identify vegetation and large-scale atmospheric changes up to 40,000 years ago.
“There are strong indicators that during the last glacial period a savannah corridor stretched through the middle of Southeast Asia effectively creating an environmental barrier that trapped different species on each side,” he said.
“Other theories suggest the barrier was a swamp forest, so we will be testing samples of guano gathered from caves in Indonesia with the aim of identifying the region’s vegetation changes.
“These same ‘barriers’ also might have played an important role for early human dispersals throughout the region and on into Australia.”
Dr Wurster will talk about how the region’s ‘biogeographic theatre’ played out over time, focusing on the changing stage (environments) and the actors (plants and animals) used at a free public lecture at JCU’s Cairns campus on November 22.
Digging up old bat poo may sound like a hard day’s work to some, but it has delivered some memorable moments for Dr Wurster.
“At a cave in Mexico we faced almost lethal levels of ammonia from the free-tailed bats which produce the chemical in such quantities that it bleaches their own fur,” he said.
“It was hot and uncomfortable inside the cave, but we sat in the desert to watch thousands of bats emerge enmasse for seven minutes and saw some being eaten by the snakes that hang down ready to grab them – it was an amazing experience.”
Dr Wurster’s presentation, ‘The biogeographic theatre of South East Asia and its ever changing stage’, is the last of James Cook University’s annual series of public lectures in science and engineering for 2012.
The lecture will be held in the Crowther Theatre at James Cook University in Smithfield on Thursday November 22. Refreshments will be served from 5.30pm and the lecture will begin at 6pm.
Issued November 15, 2012
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