National History Museum


  • Dinosaurs' Small Eggs Their Achilles Heel

    11 May 2012

    A number of changes at the transition from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary led to an enormous mass extinction that terminated the era of the dinosaurs – even if dinosaurs survived as birds to our times. Why did mammals recover so successfully from this event, whereas non-avian dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus or Apatosaurus did not? Dr Daryl Codron, recently appointed Honorary Research Associate of the National Museum and hosted at the Florisbad Quaternary Research Department, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and the Zoological Society of London, showedthat the different reproductive strategies of dinosaurs and mammals may be responsible – a fundamental difference in constraints to oviparous (egg-laying) and viviparous (giving birth to live young) animals.


    The explanation, published in Biology Letters, is based on the concept that animals of a certain body size occupy a certain niche. The main difference between dinosaurs and mammals is that whereas newborn mammals are relatively large in large species, and indirectly via milk use the same niche as their mothers, dinosaur hatchlings cannot increase in size in proportion to the size of their parents. Eggs cannot increase in size, because larger eggs need thicker shells, and shell thickness is constrained by the need of the embryo for oxygen that has to diffuse through that shell. Therefore, the size difference between dinosaur hatchlings and their parents is enormous – a 4 ton elephant mother is ‘only’ about 22 times the mass of her newborn, whereas a 4 ton dinosaur female was about 2500 times the mass of her hatchling!


    Therefore, large dinosaur species did not only occupy one niche during their lifetimes, but had to go through many different niches – for 1 kg, 10 kg, 100 kg, 1000 kg up to 30000 kg and more. One single dinosaur species would thus have occupied a series of niches that would be filled by many different mammal species. The researchers argue that therefore much fewer small and intermediate-sized dinosaur species could have co-existed as compared to mammal species. Actually, when collating body size data from fossil assemblages of avian and non-avian dinosaurs, there is a body size gap at about 2-60 kg that contains fewer species than expected. The researchers used a series of computer simulations to show that competition from larger species leads to this gap in dinosaurs, whereas no such effect is found in mammals. The simulations also show that in the presence of dinosaurs, mammals were held to small body sizes because of competition from juveniles of large dinosaur species. In addition to this, the simulations showed that competition amongst the smallest (<2 kg) dinosaurs, coupled with competition from small mammals, could have forced many small dinosaur species to extinction, or forced them to occupy an entirely new niche space (the aerial niches of birds).


    The body size gap did not pose a problem for the terrestrial predominance of dinosaurs for 150 million years. It was only the catastrophe at the end of the Cretaceous, during which animals above a body size threshold of about 10-25 kg went extinct, that led to the dinosaurs’ demise. Mammals had many species below that threshold from which new species could evolve to occupy the now wide-open niches for larger animals. But because of the body size gap, dinosaurs simply had too few species with which to enter this new phase of the competition race.


    Image: Jeanne Peter, University of Zurich,Switzerland


    Further Reading:

    Codron D, Carbone C, Müller DWH, Clauss M (2012) Ontogenetic niche shifts in dinosaurs influenced size, diversity and extinction in terrestrial vertebrates. Biology Letters DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0240

  • Ashley Kirk-spriggs graduates

    19 April 2012

    Ashley H. Kirk-Spriggs (Head of Entomology) graduated with the degree of Doctor or Philosophy from Rhodes University, Grahamstown on the 12th April, with a thesis entitled “A systematic revision of selected genera of Afrotropical Curtonotidae (Diptera: Schizophora: Ephydroidea) – a phylogenetic approach”.


  • Unearthing the past

    8 March 2012
    PAST's Walking Tall interactive educational theatre project
    PAST's Walking Tall interactive educational theatre project

    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. 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. The reasons for this are twofold; a lack of awareness, and a lack of understanding. 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”. Partial Lystrosaurus fossil skulls were collected and prepared for the specific purpose of distributing them for educational purposes. Ten selected schools each received a package of printed information, CDs, posters, casts of fossils and a real Lystrosaurus skull, which gave them the opportunity to touch the remains of an animal that lived 250 million years ago.

    The programme ran from 27 February to 2 March 2012 in conjunction with the Palaeontological Scientific Trust’s Walking Tall Programme. The Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) is based in Johannesburg and 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. 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.

  • ANC Centenary

    23 December 2011
    ANC Centenary temporary exhibition
    ANC Centenary temporary exhibition

    On 8 January 2012 the African National Congress (ANC) celebrates its 100th birthday. To commemorate this historical moment in South Africa’s political history, the National Museum has put up a display on the history of this political organisation. The display consists of banners that tell the history of the ANC by means of a timeline with certain key events highlighted. A fascinating aspect of the display is the information on the real founding venue of the ANC in Bloemfontein that was discovered by one of the National Museum’s historians, Dr Hannes Haasbroek, in 2002. Photographs of the founding venue, namely the Wesleyan School in Fort Street, Waaihoek, as well as a description of the events of 8 January 1912, provide interesting reading for the visitor. The display is further enhanced by books and documents on the ANC and its leaders.

  • John Nyaphuli receives Morris F. Skinner Award

    23 November 2011
    John Nyaphuli with the 2011 Morris F. Skinner Award
    John Nyaphuli with the 2011 Morris F. Skinner Award

    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.

  • Mentorship programme in fossil preparation

    23 August 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
    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 correct preparation techniques

    scatterlings of africa logo

  • National Science Week

    13 July 2011
    National Science Week
    National Science Week

    National Science Week, an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), is a countrywide celebration of science involving various stakeholders and role players conducting science-based activities.  National Science Week will take place simultaneously at multiple sites in all nine provinces.

    The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), a business unit of the National Research Foundation (NRF), acts as project manager for National Science Week 2011.

    The focus week will run from Monday 1 to Saturday 6 August 2011.  National Science Week is intended to expose the public, educators and learners to science, engineering and technology awareness and science-based careers.

    The National Museum, Bloemfontein will celebrate National Science Week as follows:

    1. Selected schools have been invited to attend presentations at the Museum from Monday 1 to Friday 5 August 2011.
    2. Families are invited to the Family Science Open Day on 6 August 2011.  Entry to this event is free, but booking is essential.  


    Please book by calling Mr Tebogo Mohlakane-Mafereka at 051-447 9609 or 081 326 2210 or tebogo [dot] mohlakane [at] nasmus [dot] co [dot] za

    The Family Science Open Day will start with a Science Café (discussion session) at 09h00 with the topic “The role of Science in economic development”.  The 11h30 session will feature a DVD on global warming awareness, entitled: “An Inconvenient Truth – a global warning” by Al Gore.  Snacks and cool drinks will be on sale at the Museum Shop.


  • Museum scientist publishes second book

    27 June 2011
    'n Seun soos Bram - Bram Fischer, book cover
    'n Seun soos Bram - Bram Fischer, book cover

    ‘n Seun soos Bram is a treatment of the life of advocate and anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer.  This is not a book about Fischer’s via dolorosa or an analytical work about his communism.  It is the story of a promising Afrikaner boy in the context of his prominent Free State family.  It is also the story of his mother Ella who never abandoned her own nationalist views or her devotion to her son.  This story of intrigue and espionage, but also of Bram’s happy childhood and close ties with his mother, is partly based on new documents such as family letters and Ella’s diaries.

    The author, Hannes Haasbroek, is Head of the History Department at the National Museum.  His book on the life of the well known soprano, Cecilia Wessels, Stem en Legende, was published in 2005.