Palynology is the study of pollen grains or other “palynomorphs” (= resistant microscopic structures derived from various organisms), e.g., phytoliths (= silica bodies from plant leaf cuticles). Palynomorphs regularly stay preserved in sediments as microfossils. These microfossils have been of great importance in palaeobotanical reconstruction of Quaternary and older environments worldwide, by indicating the past vegetation and climatic conditions during different times like the Late Pleistocene, Holocene etc.
The rock hyrax is an herbivore that is commonly found throughout southern Africa, and has the particular habit of defecating in the same location over many generations. These locations, often sheltered in caves, become covered in faecal pellets and are sealed in accumulations of dried urine, known as hyraceum. Contained in these deposits are are a wide variety of palaeoenvironmental proxies including pollen and stable isotopes. Once sealed in hyraceum, these records are protected from mechanical disruption as well as the wetting and drying typical of semi-arid environments, and have been preserved perfectly for upwards of 50,000 years.
Recently, the European Research Council has awarded €1,484,000 of funding for a five-year project (HYRAX) to explore the potential of these unique deposits.