Terrestrial palaeoecology and sedimentary environments of Karoo-aged basins of southern Gondwana


Roger excavating a Moradisaurus from beneath the desert sands of northern Niger

My research focuses on the truly unique South African research opportunity offered by the rocks and fossils of the main Karoo Basin of South Africa . My field based research is aimed at reconstruction ancient ecosystems of the former supercontinent of Gondwana during an interval of geological time that encompasses the evolutionary transitions from true reptiles to true mammals as well as the earliest dinosaurs.

The primary sources of data are the rocks and fossils of the Karoo Supergroup in South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, East Africa and Madagascar. The motivation for placing this project in this focus area is that the Karoo Basin is undoubtedly the world’s largest and richest collecting ground for therapsids, the long-extinct transitionary group between reptiles and mammals. The rationale for this project is to study the changes in the landscapes and terrestrial ecology of the Karoo Basin, at many different time intervals over a total time span of some 60 million years, in order to document and calibrate the causes, rates and timing of the evolutionary innovations that eventually led to the origin of mammals and dinosaurs some 200 million years ago.

Lystrosaurus skeleton in the field near Bethulie - now in Stone Bones display

I work on numerous projects under the general title of “Palaeoecology of Gondwana” almost all of which are field based and integrate palaeontological and sedimentological data into palaeoenvironmental reconstructions of ancient landscapes- especially in dramatic changes that took place in the Karoo Basin during the End-Permian mass extinction event. 

Over the past 10 years Roger I have venture further afield by participating in several collaborative research expeditions to Eritrea, Niger, Lesotho, Namibia, Madagascar, Antarctica, Zambia and Tanzania, mostly funded by the American National Science Foundation and the National Geographical Society. This has allowed me to extend the search area for Karoo fossils out of the main Karoo basin of South Africa into the peripheral rift valleys. These studies are ongoing with Argentina and Brazil on the agenda for 2012.

Annelise Crean one of South Africa’s top vertebrate fossil preparators

Notable fossils recently recovered at the P-T boundary sections to date include an articulated Moschorhinus skeleton, 2 intercurled juvenile Thrinaxodon skeletons, a new cynodont currently in press named Progalesauruslootsbergensis, a complete skull of Dinanomodon, a rare parrot-beaked dicynodont, an amphibian with ventral scales, the largest Lystrosaurus skeleton yet excavated, bonebeds of multiple animals that died together, a rare trackway surface at the boundary both showing herbivore and carnivore footprints. Some interesting archosauromorph bonebeds consisting of multiple Prolacerta skeletons and an uncrushed Proterosuchus skull are currently under preparation.

Highlights of the past few years wasthe recovery of a skull and lower jaw of a new burnetiid from a farm near Aberdeen in the southern Karoo. This is closely related to Proburnetia which is otherwise only represented by a singe specimen from northern Russia! Prof Bruce Rubidge (BPI Wits) helped with the type description and a discussion of tetrapod migration patterns in Pangaea during the latest Permian and this paper has been submitted for publication. A new captorhinomorph was recovered by Dr Sean Modesto (Carnegie Museum, Pittsburg) from the Leeuwkloof taphonomic study section near Beaufort West. This has since been prepared and described. Another publication is on the sexual dimorphism of Diictodon (in collaboration with Prof Reisz and Dr Sullivan of Toronto Univ) which has shown that adult males supported tusks, whereas the females were tuskless. A long term project on the morphology and composition of Late Permian carnivore coprolites has recently been published.

2 intercurled Diictodon skeletons – 253 million year old

Current projects

  • The End-Permian mass extinction and subsequent recovery of terrestrial ecosystems in western Gondwana.
  • The study of therapsid coprolites. Around 60 thin sections have been cut and work is progressing with analysing their composition with special attention to possible hair like structures and the fragmentation patterns of bones in these ancient faeces.
  • Strengthening Gondwanan correlations- a Brazilian mid Triassic dicynodont recovered from Namibia
  • Palaeoecology of the great African rift valley system during the Permo-Triassic: Tanzanian and Zambian faunas and palaeoenvironments

Roger M.H. Smith

Reconstruction of the Late Permain gorgonopsian (Aelurognathus) in the Stone Bones display

Ph.D. University Cape Town (Geology) (1990)

Curator/Researcher Karoo Palaeontology

Natural History Department
Iziko South African Museum
PO Box 61

Cape Town 8000
South Africa

Phone: +27 (0)21 481 3879
Fax: +27 (0)21 481 3993
Email: rsmith@iziko.org.za

Research interests

Paul October excavating a complete Galesaurus skeleton in the Bethulie distraict of S Africa

Terrestrial palaeoecology and sedimentary environments of karoo-aged basins of southern Gondwana.

Research related exhibitions and displays

Stones Bonesof the Ancient Karoo (Iziko SA Museum, permanent, launched 2007)

African Dinosaurs (Iziko SA Museum, permanent, launched 2010)


Download publications: Roger M. H. Smith