Karoo Palaeontology Department
 
 

News

Visit by previous head of department

12 January 2017

Prof. Steve Fourie (right) was the head of the Karoo Palaeontology Department in the early 1970s.  During this time he and John Nyaphuli worked closely together. John joined the Museum in 1973 and soon showed talent for preparing fossils.  During his time here he developed into the best fossil preparator in the country and one of the best in the world.  After his retirement John remains involved at the Museum where he assists with training and also prepares delicate fossils.  Prof. Fourie later left the Museum to accept a post at the University of the Free State, where he retired in 1998.  He visited the Karoo Palaeontology Department where he and John, both 83 years old, caught up on days gone by.

Postdoctoral Fellow

10 January 2017

Dr Lucas Legendre

Dr Lucas Legendre from Paris joined the Karoo Palaeontology Department in July as a Postdoctoral Fellow for two years.  He is working with Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink on the bone microstructure of burrowing animals.  The ecology of an animal plays an important role in influencing the way bone tissue grows.  Dr Legendre’s research aims to identify how a burrowing lifestyle affects bone tissue patterns.  Results will be used to infer burrowing or digging behaviours from the fossil bone microstructure of extinct animals.  This kind of evidence can shed light on the ecology of an extinct animal when other avenues (e.g. skeletal anatomy) remain ambiguous.  

New species of dinosaur ancestor found in South Africa

14 November 2014

New species of dinosaur ancestor found in South Africa

 

Reconstruction of new dinosaur species
Reconstruction of Garjainia madiba
A new species of the erythrosuchid archosauriform reptile Garjainia has been found near Paul Roux in the eastern Free State of South Africa. The new species, Garjainia madiba, so named after Nelson Mandela, is described by Gower et al. in the journal Plos ONE. It differs slightly from its sister species G. prima, which is found only in Russia. This dinosaur ancestor lived during the early Middle Triassic, some 247 million years ago. It reached a length of some 5 metres and was one of the dominant predators in South Africa at this time. “An analysis of its bone microstructure indicates rapid growth rates, consistent with data for many other Triassic archosauriforms, but also a high degree of flexibility as growth slowed during the unfavourable growing season” says Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink, a palaeontologist from the National Museum, Bloemfontein, and co-author on the paper. G. madiba is the geologically oldest erythrosuchid reptile known from the Southern Hemisphere, and demonstrates that these animals achieved a cosmopolitan biogeographical distribution by the end of the Early Triassic, within five million years of the end-Permian mass extinction, the most catastrophic mass extinction in Earth’s history.

 

 

Study of fossil turtles

7 November 2014

Through careful study of modern and early fossil turtles, researchers now have a better understanding of how turtles breathe and the evolutionary processes that helped shape their unique breathing apparatus and turtle shell. The findings reported in Nature Communications on 7 November help determine when and how the unique breathing apparatus of turtles evolved. Lead author Dr. Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution and Denver Museum of Nature and Science says, “Turtles have a bizarre body plan and one of the more puzzling aspects to this body plan is the fact that turtles have locked their ribs up into the iconic turtle shell. No other animal does this and the likely reason why is because ribs play such an important role in breathing in most animals including mammals, birds, crocodylians, and lizards.”

A Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra porteri) (Markus Lambertz)

Instead turtles have developed a unique abdominal muscular sling that wraps around their lungs and organs to help them breathe. When and how this mechanism evolved has been unknown. “It seemed pretty clear that the turtle shell and breathing mechanism evolved in tandem, but which happened first? It’s a bit of the chicken or the egg causality dilemma,” says Lyson.

“We studied the anatomy and bone microstructure of the earliest fossil turtle, Eunotosaurus africanus and found that the muscle insertion markers indicating the presence of intercostal muscles, which are critical for breathing in most other animals, were absent, indicating that the modern turtle breathing apparatus was already in place around 260 million years ago” says Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, the South African palaeontologist who analysed the Eunotosaurus thin sections. This animal shares many unique features with modern day turtles, but lacked a shell. A recognizable turtle shell doesn’t appear for another 50 million years. Lyson says “Eunotosaurus bridges the morphological gap between the early reptile body plan and the highly modified body plan of living turtles, making it the Archaeopteryx of turtles.”

The study suggests that early in the evolution of the turtle body plan a gradual increase in body wall rigidity produced a division of function between the ribs and abdominal respiratory muscles. As the ribs broadened and stiffened the torso, they became less effective for breathing which caused the abdominal muscles to become specialized for breathing, which in turn freed up the ribs to eventually – approximately 50 million years later – to become fully integrated into the characteristic turtle shell.

Lyson says he and his colleagues now plan to investigate reasons why the ribs of early turtles starting to broaden in the first place. “Broadened ribs are the first step in the general increase in body wall rigidity of early basal turtles, which ultimately leads to both the evolution of the turtle shell and this unique way of breathing. I plan to study this key aspect to get a better understanding why the ribs started to broaden.”

 

A Computed Tomography rendering of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) showing the skeleton (white), lungs (blue), and abdominal muscles (red and pink) used to ventilate the lungs. Because turtles have locked their ribs up into the iconic turtle shell, they can no longer use their ribs to breathe as in most other animals and instead have developed a unique abdominal muscle based system (Credit: Emma R. Schachner).

 

 

Early in the evolution of the turtle body plan a gradual increase in body wall rigidity produced a division of function where the abdominal muscles became specialized for breathing, which freed up the ribs to eventually (approximately 50 million years later) become fully integrated into the characteristic turtle shell (Credit: Blair Lyons (Stroma Studios) and Emma R. Schachner).

 

 

A new study shows that while the early (260 myr) proto turtle, Eunotosaurus africanus from South Africa, only had the beginnings of a turtle shell, it already had the highly modified abdominal muscular sling that is used to breathe in modern turtles, including Pelusios niger on the right (Credit: Luke Norton).

Uncovering the slow origin of mammals

3 September 2013

 

Cynodonts, the ancient closest relatives of mammals, arose during the Late Permian, and then diversified steadily through the Triassic. Their fossils have been found on every continent, but they are especially well known from South Africa, Argentina, and Russia. The cynodonts, not only survived the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, which was the greatest mass extinction of all time, but thrived in the aftermath. After the extinction, the cynodonts radiated dramatically through the Triassic to form two new major groups namely the cynognathians and the probainognathians. They occupied many new ecological roles, the cynognathians being mostly herbivorous and the probainognathians being mostly carnivorous. It is from this latter group that the first true mammals arose. The first mammals evolved over 225 million years ago, and include small shrew-like animals such as Megazostrodon from South Africa,Morganucodon from England, and Bienotherium from China. They had fur, differentiated teeth (incisors, canines, molars), large brains, and were probably endothermic, all characteristics which contribute to their huge success today.

However, new research suggests that this array of unique features arose step-wise over a long time span, and that the first mammals may have arisen as a result of the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, 252 million years ago, which wiped out 90 per cent of marine organisms and 70 per cent of terrestrial species. Although mass extinctions are usually seen as entirely negative, in this case, the cynodonts, which were rare before the extinction, radiated to fill many different niches during the Triassic. The cynognathians radiated rapidly following the mass extinction and continued to do so throughout their history. However, although the probainognathians also diversified rapidly after the mass extinction, their rates of evolutionary change decreased steadily through the Triassic. The cynognathians went extinct during the Late Triassic, but the probainognathians continued to evolve and eventually gave rise to the first mammals some 25 million years after the mass extinction.

It is traditionally thought that mammals experienced a "burst" of evolutionary innovation, and that the first mammals would have had obvious features that clearly set them apart from their ancestors, the cynodonts. However, they were found to be so similar to other cynodonts that it would be difficult to discern the first mammals from the latest cynodonts. These results suggest that cynodont diversification went through two phases: an initial phase characterised by rapid evolutionary rates or "early bursts" (in the case of most cynognathians and early probainognathians) and a second, prolonged or "long fuse" phase for the more slowly evolving groups such as most probainognathians and the earliest mammals.

Paper

Ruta M, Botha-Brink J, Mitchell SA, Benton MJ. 2013 The radiation of cynodonts and the ground plan of mammalian morphological diversity. Proc R Soc B. 208 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.1865


Evolution Education Programme

8 April 2013

Evolution is the foundation of all biological sciences, and understanding the concept is fundamental for anyone wanting to embark on a career in biology. Although the subject now forms part of the South African school curriculum, there are still problems with correctly disseminating information on the subject. In 2012, the Karoo Palaeontology Department of the National Museum launched an Evolution Education Programme to communicate with educators in the Free State, provide them with resources and resolve the common misconceptions and problems that educators have with teaching the subject of evolution.

Due to the great success of the endeavour the programme was run again in February 2013 in conjunction with the Palaeontological Scientific Trust’s (PAST) Walking Tall Programme from Johannesburg. Resource materials including posters, CDs, fossil casts (including hominid skulls such as Australopithecus sediba and Homo erectus) and various information on evolution and how best to teach the subject, were delivered to the schools and the cast of the Walking Tall Programme gave an evolution education theatre performance at each school. We reached an estimated 1058 learners, which is a 47% increase from 2012.

We have also expanded the programme to include educators’ workshops, which were held at the National Museum and in Botshabelo, on the outskirts of Bloemfontein. The workshops were presented by Professor Robert Blumenschine, the Chief Scientific and Education Strategist of PAST and Ms Andrea Leenen, the CEO of PAST. The aim of the presentation was to give teachers an overview of evolution and specifically, the evolution of humans; resolve any misconceptions about evolution; and provide teachers with new ideas on how best to teach the subject. Seventy educators from 48 schools attended the workshops. Due to the positive response and encouraging feedback from the teachers, the National Museum and PAST have resolved to repeat these workshops next year.

 

 

Unearthing the Past and the Walking Tall Programme

8 March 2012

South Africa is world-renowned for its extensive fossil record. The rocks of the Karoo Basin contain the most complete record of the origins and evolution of mammals and the earliest dinosaurs, making South Africa one of the top palaeontological destinations in the world. However, the South African community does not share the wonder and interest noticed in visitors from other countries. The reasons for this are twofold; a lack of awareness, and a lack of understanding. South Africa contains a fossil record of unparalleled richness, and yet, the majority of South Africans are unaware of our precious fossil heritage and our place in the global community as one of the leaders in palaeontology. Although Evolution became part of the school curriculum in 2008, many of our young learners still do not fully understand the concept of Evolution and its importance to the human race.

Much still needs to be done to promote a sense of awareness and pride in our African heritage and to bring about an appreciation for past life on Earth and how we, as humans, came to be here. Thus, the Karoo Palaeontology Department of the National Museum, Bloemfontein resolved to take on this challenge by implementing a programme entitled “Unearthing the Past”. Over the past three years the staff of the Karoo Palaeontology Department collected partial Lystrosaurus fossil skulls with no scientific value, for the specific purpose of distributing them for educational purposes. Two of the department’s preparators spent the whole of 2011 preparing 10 of these fossils, which formed part of an educational package for schools. Each school received a package full of printed information, CDs, posters, casts of fossils and a Lystrosaurus skull, which gave them the opportunity to touch the remains of an animal that lived 250 million years ago. A large part of teaching Evolution comprises learning about past life on Earth, i.e. the fossil record. Thus, although it is important to disseminate information to learners via verbal or visual media, nothing can equal being able to physically touch an organism that lived millions of years ago. Consequently, the fossils that were given to schools will hopefully instil an appreciation for our valuable heritage.

The programme ran from 27th February to 2nd March 2012 in conjunction with the Palaeontological Scientific Trust’s Walking Tall Programme. The Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), which is based in Johannesburg, is a non-profit organization involved in supporting palaeontological and archaeological research and education in Africa. The Walking Tall Programme is an interactive educational theatre project, which aims to bring the history of life on Earth to life via the performing arts. We visited 10 schools, handed over the education packages and then the cast of the Walking Tall Programme gave a theatre performance, which informed learners about the story of life on Earth and introduced learners to the origin of humans. This was PAST’s first visit to the Free State and the positive response from the learners was overwhelming. Many schools have asked PAST’s Walking Tall Programme to return to Bloemfontein and the National Museum has resolved to work with PAST in order to bring the Walking Tall Programme back to Bloemfontein.


PAST's walking Tall programme
Buntu, Carla and Chris from PAST’s Walking Tall Programme, teaching the learners about human evolution.

John Nyaphuli receives Morris F. Skinner Award

9 December 2011

John Nyphulie and Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink
John Nyaphuli and Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink

John Nyaphuli, the National Museum’s most experienced fossil preparator, was awarded the 2011 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Morris F. Skinner Award.  This award is presented for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge through the making of important collections of fossil vertebrates and encouraging, training or teaching others towards the same pursuits.  Based in the United States, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is palaeontology’s largest international society.  John is only the second South African to have won this award, after the late James Kitching, who won it in 2000.

John has 38 years of experience in the field and has recovered hundreds of fossils, including six specimens that are completely new to science. His efforts in the field have been recognized by numerous researchers and in honour of his contribution to palaeontology, two new species, the basal anomodont therapsids (ancient ancestors of mammals) Australosyodon nyaphuli and Patranomodon nyaphulii, have been named after him. He was also awarded Honorary Life Membership of the National Museum in 1999 and Honorary Life Membership of the Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa in 2004 for his outstanding contributions to palaeontology.

John, at the age of 78, travelled to Las Vegas with Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink in November 2011 to attend the 71st annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in order to receive the award in person.

Unearthing the past

14 July 2011

South Africa is world-renowned for its extensive fossil record. The rocks of the Karoo Basin contain the most complete record of the origins and evolution of mammals and the earliest dinosaurs, making South Africa one of the top palaeontological destinations in the world. New fossil species are continually being discovered, species which contain new information about the early ancestors of mammals and dinosaurs. As part of our natural heritage, these specimens must be carefully prepared and conserved. Important information contained in fossils can be developed and enhanced by proper and careful preparation techniques and this information can be preserved for future generations through publication of research results, and the proper conservation and storage of these specimens.

Fossil preparators, who are responsible for preparing fossils for research and exhibition purposes by removing the surrounding rock or matrix and repairing damaged parts, play a critical role in Palaeontology. Correct preparation techniques have the ability to unlock crucial information from a specimen, whereas poor preparation can result in the loss of that information.  

Fossil preparation requires a combination of skills which must be developed over time; it demands knowledge of the specimen, the ability to focus for long periods of time, fine motor skills, patience and motivation.

John Nyaphuli
Mr John Nyaphuli

The National Museum is pleased to announce a mentorship programme in fossil preparation, co-ordinated by Mr John Nyaphuli and sponsored by the Technical Training and Capacity Support Programme of the Palaeontological Scientific Trust’s (PAST) Scatterlings of Africa Project. Mr John Nyaphuli has worked as a fossil preparator in the Karoo Palaeontology Department of the National Museum since 1973. He has 37 years experience in field excavation, mechanical and acid fossil preparation and is one of the finest fossil preparators in the world. He has discovered numerous fossils and in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Palaeontology, both in the field and laboratory, was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the National Museum in 1999 and Honorary Life Membership of the Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa in 2004.

Mr Nyaphuli has trained numerous preparators at various institutions over the years and the Museum has been eager to begin a new mentorship programme with two trainees, Ms Sabie Chaka and Mr William Molehe, who joined the Museum recently this year. Our new preparators will be preparing fossils as part of an educational programme to promote Palaeontology in Bloemfontein. The fossils will provide learners with the unique opportunity to touch the remains of animals that lived millions of years ago. The educational aspect of the programme will be launched in 2012 in association with PAST’s Walking Tall Educational Theatre Project, a programme that uses theatre to inform learners about the story of life on Earth.

John teaching William Molehe (left) and Sabie Chaka (right) correct preparation techniques.
John teaching William Molehe (left) and Sabie Chaka (right) correct preparation techniques.

           

“Stay Tuned for Progress”

 

 

        

Department News

26 October 2010

 

Erythrosuchus africanus

In 2008 an almost complete, fully articulated skeleton of the extinct archosauriform reptile, Erythrosuchus africanus was discovered by one of the departmental staff. Archosauriforms are a group of reptiles that are the ancestors of crocodiles and dinosaurs. This skeleton is the only known complete articulated specimen of Erythrosuchus and thus provides important information about this genus and the ancestors of dinosaurs.

Erythrosuchus was a 5m long carnivore that was the dominant predator in the Karoo during the Middle Triassic, about 245 million years ago. Our specimen is not quite fully adult, it is about 3.5m long and is probably about 65% of the maximum size of these creatures.

It took the museum fossil preparators nine months to prepare and is now on display in the Palaeontology Hall of the National Museum.

Erythrosuchus skeleton on display
Erythrosuchus africanus skeleton on display (photo by Elsa Kotze)