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Bird droppings show effects of environmental change

Posted on 18. June, 2012.

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New research findings highlight how deposits of animal droppings are scientifically important for determining the impact of environmental change on threatened species.

Researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, analysed 50 years' bird droppings inside a large decommissioned chimney on Queen's campus. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The chimney had been a roosting spot for chimney swifts, and their droppings provided evidence that DDT and bird diet may have played a role in the long-term decline of populations of insect-eating birds in North America.

The researchers at Queen's University Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab developed a protocol for sampling the accumulation of droppings. They created a profile of the chimney swift guano deposit, then recruited experts to analyse different parts of the profile.

DDT use peaked at the same time as there was a dramatic reduction in the abundance of beetles – insects especially susceptible to DDT – in the diet of swifts, according to analysis of the pile of droppings. This illustrates an impact of DDT that adds to its already infamous role in the thinning of eggshells.

"Certainly there are many other deposits in large chimneys around North America and elsewhere, forming important environmental time capsules," said biology professor and co-author John P. Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, and previous winner of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada's top scientist. "It may be a stinky job, but someone has to do it!"

The article “Historical pesticide applications coincided with an altered diet of aerially foraging insectivorous chimney swifts” by John P, Smol et al is published in Proc. R. Soc. B rspb20120445; published ahead of print April 18, 2012, doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.0445 1471-2954

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