When Sarah Ivory says she's found a goldmine, it's probably not what you'd expect. The paeloecologist and new Penn State professor of Geosciences finds treasure in a most unusual place – well-preserved piles of ancient animal droppings.
Ivory's research involves the study of past ecosystem changes, and fossilized urine despots, also called middens, can provide valuable clues about ancient vegetation.
"We name all the sites we find," Ivory said. "One was called the hyrax goldmine."
Hyrax are small mammals that look like rodents, but are actually most closely related to elephants and manatees. Their habit of using the same spot to do their business over many generations can provide important clues about the past.
Ivory is searching for preserved pollen samples that can tell a story about vegetation and climate thousands of years ago. That information can better inform future conservation strategies.
This fall, Ivory will travel to Oman to conduct additional research.
"We are going to be hiking through the desert, climbing cliffs and looking for fossilized urinary deposits," she said.
Ivory recently joined Penn State as an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences. She is also an associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.
She received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and worked there as a postdoctoral researcher and as a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University before coming to Penn State.
"I'm very excited about coming to Penn State, because they seem to have a very strong promotion of and support for interdisciplinary research," she said. "I'm really looking forward to being in an environment where that's really valued.
In addition to her research with fossil pollen records, Ivory uses models and remote sensing data to better understand the processes that drive tropical ecological change and responses to climate in the past.