Sleeping under the stars by night, digging for bones in remote areas by day, and uncovering fossils of long-extinct beasts? What exactly does it mean to be a palaeontologist? Iziko Associate and A-rated scientist, Professor Roger Smith, gives some insight into what it is that palaeontologists get up to in the field, during a recent trip to Bethulie district in the southern Free State.
The Karoo 2017 fieldtrip has returned from a very successful research trip. For two weeks, they camped in the Tussen Die Rivieren nature reserve between the Orange and Caledon rivers – both of which were in flood. The team, led by Prof. Roger Smith, included Sibusiso Mtungata, Nolusindiso Mtalana, Zaituna Skosan, Tiffany van Zyl, Jay van den Berg and Shandré Riddles from the Karoo prep lab, and a volunteer fossil finder, Dr Derik Wolvaardt who grew up in nearby Aliwal North.
The team spent long days scouring rock outcrops on the adjoining farms for the fossilised bones of 250-million-year-old reptiles. The project, funded by the African Origins Platform, aims to understand how the terrestrial ecosystems of Gondwana recovered from the mass extinction event 252 million years ago that nearly wiped out all living things. Prof. Smith is especially interested in how the ancestors of mammals and archosaurs survived what he has identified as a very severe and long-lasting global drought at that time. The Karoo is one of the few places that this event is recorded, and as such, the results of the project are of interest to geologists and palaeontologists world-wide.
The team was especially tasked with finding small fist-sized skeletons, for it is among these tiny survivors that Prof. Smith hoped to find the elusive ancestors to all the crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds, as well as the advanced mammal-like reptiles that continued the lineage to mammals. After 2 weeks, the team had collected 50 specimens, of which more than half were of small animals – now we just have to wait for the preparators to work their magic to see if there is anything new.