LIFE LINES LIFE LINES LIFE LINES ll day long the relentless sun has torn at and Athe rock, sculpting it into awkward,and the land,carvnow a burning evening wind howls whines, ing twisted shapes, (Columba livia), the fancy name for what most of us call a pigeon. Above each guanomite was a ledge, just large wearing it down infinitesimally with each abrasive gust. enough for a nest. The guanomites are the record of generAnother day ends in the Harrat Kishb of central Saudi ations of birds pushing their behinds out of their nests to Arabia, a cruel region of lava fields and baking heat, a defecate, each dropping a contribution to the growth of bone-dry landscape wrinkled and warped into a rocky the column below. desert badland. Life here is scarce, very scarce. And yet it is There is a PhD waiting for anyone who can answer the here that you will find a biogeological phenomenon unlike questions raised by this discovery. How fast do guanomites any other in the world guanomites. grow? Are they the product of tens or thousands of years of If asked to suggest a list of geological formations that are growth? Do guanomites, like other guano mounds, contain the result of biological activity we would almost certainly guano mites? What is the ecology of these strange strucinclude the Great Barrier Reef, tures? If they are ancient, might the White Cliffs of Dover, and they contain the remains of the stromatolites of Australia. seeds or pollen that could tell us We could be excused, though, about the past vegetation of for not thinking of guanomites, Saudi Arabia? What on Earth since these were only discovare doves doing living in a ered in 2001. As their name waterless, apparently foodless suggests, guanomites are "stadesert? And why underground? lagmites" of bird guano and, at "Actually, it is quite normal for least for now, are known to rock doves to nest underground", exist only in a few ancient lavaexplains Daniel Haag-Wackertube caves in the arid Harrat nagel, a Professor of Biology at the Kishb. However, while the forUniversity of Basel, Switzerland. mations in the above list all "Many nest inside caves even required an abundance of water inside the underground train tunto come into existence, it is nels in London. In Khaf al almost certainly the near Ashbaah, the birds are probably absence of water that allowed taking advantage of the safety and guanomites to appear and to shelter available. How far they withstand the test of time. have to go to feed and drink, howTucked away from any dissolvever, is a very interesting question ing rainfall, and out of the scourto which we just don't have the ing wind, some have grown as Susy Pint among the goblins of the Khaf al Ashbaah. answer." tall as a man. Nevertheless, Haag-WackerJohn Pint, a seasoned speleologist who has explored the nagel may have the first clue regarding the age of the cave's caves of Arabia for the Saudi Geological Survey, led the guanomites. He set up an experiment in a feral pigeon team that first recorded their existence. Lowering himself research loft to measure the height reached by piles of guano into the Khaf al Ashbaah or "Ghostly Cave" (a 20-foot deposited by roosting birds and found that even the large pildrop by rope ladder from a gaping hole in the ceiling of this lars in Khaf al Ashbaah may require only 3050 years to lava tube), he did not expect what he was about to see. develop. "Of course, what we really need to do is radiocarbon "The entrance to the lava tube was long and low. In the date the different layers of the cave's guanomites, but this is a half-light beyond I could see a large chamber filled with little outside our main interest of rock dove ecology." figures. It was as if I had surprised a gathering of skinny There could also be more guanomites waiting to be disgoblins and they had immediately turned to stone", he covered. "Detailed maps of Harrat Khaybar, another region recalls. "Slowly, I stepped into the chamber. These statues of central Saudi Arabia, show at least 40 more lava tubes, looked like stalagmites but there were no stalactites above none of which have been explored", says Pint. "This is them: after all, this is no limestone cave, but a lava tube. where I would look for more examples of guanomites, as On closer examination I found these strange figures to be many of these caves are far from roads and are undismade of bird droppings. There must have been 50 of them, turbed." In the subterranean world beneath Saudi Arabia's the tallest standing over five feet high." blistering desert, someone's academic career is just waiting The animal responsible for these formations flew out of to be made. Adrian Burton the cave as Pint was lowering himself in a rock dove J. Pint/www.saudicaves.com www.frontiersinecology.org © The Ecological Society of America
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment – Ecological Society of America
Published: Oct 1, 2012
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