Project 04E: RSPAS/ANH Small Grants 2004-


Coprophilous Fungi: A new proxy for human settlement and pig husbandry in Asia-Pacific.

Researchers: Dr Simon Haberle, Dr Janelle Stevenson, Dr Mike MacPhail and Dr Mike Richardson (Mycologist, Edinburgh UK)

New Guinea has been claimed as one of the earliest centers of agricultural development in the world1. While there is increasing information on the nature and antiquity of plant domestication in the region there is very little known about the prehistory of domesticated animals. The largest and one of the most significant domestic animals in New Guinea is the Southeast Asian pig (Sus scrofa). Archeological remains of pig in New Guinea are sparse and dating of pig bone is problematic. Despite the central role that pigs currently play a highland New Guinea economies and its marked cultural value in the highland prestige system the antiquity of pig introduction remains unknown.

We have been examining the potential of using the presence/abundance of microscopic dung fungi preserved in swamp sediments as an indicator of the presence of pigs in the swamp catchment. The technique has proved successful in North America and Madagascar2 to explore megafaunal extinctions and the introduction of domestic ungulates into the landscape. Our intention is to apply this technique to the question of when did pig first appear in the New Guinea highlands.

In August 2004 Haberle traveled to Papua New Guinea to collect modern surface samples from a range of known swamp and lake sites that are currently utilized by domestic pig populations at a range of intensities to determine the relationship between pig populations and dung fungi preserved in the sediments. Samples were collected from the Eastern Highlands Province and Chimbu Province, between 4000m to 1000m above sea level. A sediment core was taken from a lake at 1800m above sea level in montane rainforest that has no evidence for pig activity and is >10km from the nearest human settlement. This will be a control site to examine the presence of coprophilous fungi through time. We anticipate that this will be minimal, representing the “natural” background level of coprophilous fungi in the environment. Analysis of these samples is ongoing and will be incorporated into an ANH laboratory project to be completed at end of 2005.

Four samples of fresh pig coprolites were also collected in the field to examine the fungal taxa that germinated during decomposition. Dr Mike Richardson (Edinburgh, UK) examined these samples and found at least 2 coprophil genera that were distinctive and likely to be identifiable in sediments; Coprinus and Sordaria (Table 1).

Coprophilous fungi identified and comments
PNG sample 1
An inkcap basidiomycete developed, of the Coprinus lanatuli group, possibly C. radiatus. None have produced mature spores. Coprinus spores should be identifiable in sediments.
PNG sample 2
No coprophils
PNG sample 3
Sordaria fimicola. a typical coprophil, with dark spores which might be recognised in sediments; Gymnoascus reesii, a cosmopolitan keratinophilic/cellulolytic soil fungus which occasionally occurs on dung. The spores are hyaline and very small, so would not be detectable in sediments, but the characteristic hooked hyphal elements of the ascomata might be detectable.
PNG sample 4

Sordaria humana and S. fimicola, as in PNG sample 3.

Taphonomic and taxonomic information (based on ongoing research by Dr Janelle Stevenson and Dr Mike Macphail, ANH) has been completed and will be incorporated into this project3. A joint presentation on the outcomes of the fungal project by Janelle Stevenson, Simon Haberle, and Mike Macphail was given at the recent Australasian Quaternary Association biennial meeting held at Cradle Mt Chateau, Tasmania (6th – 10th Dec 2004). View Poster [1.1Mb]

The outcomes of an examination of coprophilous fungi in a short core from Lake Sondambile, a small subalpine lake at 3750m altitude in the Sarawaged Ranges of Papua New Guinea is summarized in Figure 1. A 1.7m core from the centre of the lake shows a gradual reduction in coprophilous fungi over the last ~700 cal yr BP. This is coincident with reduced burning and gradual recovery of the subalpine forest, both pointing to reduced human utilisation of the alpine environments. Currently human populations live below 2500m altitude subsisting mainly on the highly productive South American tuber, sweet potato, and occasional hunting. The introduction of sweet potato sometime between 700-400 years ago may have been a key factor in reducing both human and pig utilisation of the alpine environments.

We hope to continue this work beyond 2005 and will be actively seeking to develop this into a PhD program for a suitable candidate by the end of 2006.

  1. Denham et al. (2003) Science 301, 189-193.
  2. Burney et al. (2003) PNAS 100(19), 10800-10805.
  3. Macphail, M. and Stevenson, J. (2004) Fungal Spores in Archaeological Context. PalaeoWorks Technical Report 3. p.110 + 151 fungal taxa as colour images. [download sample pages PDF 1Mb]*


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