Comparison of <em>Sporormiella</em> dung fungal spores and oribatid mites as indicators of large herbivore presence: evidence from the Cuzco region of Peru

Publication date: Available online 8 January 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science

Author(s): Alex J. Chepstow-Lusty, Michael R. Frogley, Anne S. Baker


The ability of sedimentary proxies (especially dung fungal spores) to reflect the past presence and density of large herbivores on a landscape has been receiving increasing scrutiny. Here we examine the Sporormiella spore record from a well-dated, multi-proxy, highly organic sedimentary record from the small lake basin of Marcacocha in the Cuzco region of Peru. The basin, a wetland since ca. AD 1840, existed as a small lake for at least 4000 years prior. Previous work at Marcacocha has shown that changes in herbivore densities reflect the abundances of oribatid mites preserved in the lake sediments. This study tests the assumption that both the Sporormiella and the oribatid mite records responded in broadly the same way to changes in herbivore densities over the past 1200 years.

Analysis reveals a very low covariance between concentrations of Sporormiella spores and the two major components of the oribatid mite assemblage: a single aquatic species of Hydrozetes and a less abundant, wider grouping comprising members of the mostly terrestrial superfamily Ceratozetoidea (referred to as the ‘ceratozetoids’). Variations in the Hydrozetes assemblage clearly dovetail with known historical events, including the massive decline of indigenous and camelid populations following the collapse of the Inca Empire in the mid-sixteenth century. Comparison with other environmental proxies from the Marcacocha sequence, including diatoms and charophyte oospores, suggests that the ceratozetoids appear to reflect increasing terrestrialization. In contrast, although the Sporormiella record indicates the presence of livestock, it fails to register the major historical changes in herbivore presence, though reflects well episodes of lake-level lowering. In small lake settings, therefore, the use of Sporormiella to estimate the density of herbivores in the catchment might be considered a relatively blunt instrument when compared with some other indicators.