Digging for dinosaurs

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Many people are surprised to learn that dinosaurs once lived in South Africa. In fact, you can find fossils on more than 60% of South Africa’s land surface, making it one of the paleontologically richest countries in the world.

The famous road engineer and explorer Andrew Geddes Bain first discovered dinosaur fossils near Port Elizabeth in 1845, on what is today Amakhala Game Reserve. These remains, and others found soon after near Aliwal North, were sent to the British Museum. There, the eminent naturalists Thomas Huxley and Sir Richard Owen named them as some of the first dinosaurs ever known to science. I am humbly carrying on this great tradition, and since 2012 my research team and I have named on average one new South African dinosaur species each year. Last year we described the fossils of a new 12-tonne plant-eater named Ledumahadi mafube, which roamed the Free State 200 million years ago.

For several weeks each year, I take a small team of students, technical staff, and international collaborators into the field to discover and dig up dinosaur bones. We focus on the area immediately surrounding the Lesotho border. Our main targets are the brick-red rock layers that erode out of the foothills. These were once the mud left by streams overflowing their banks 200 million years ago. Those floods covered the bones of animals that had died on the stream banks, and over millions of years the mud turned to stone and the bones became fossils.

dinosaur fossils

Photo: Billy de Klerk.

As today’s erosion eats away at those rocks, occasionally a fossil comes to the surface. My team spends hours carefully walking rock surfaces, hoping to find those fossils. When we find something that looks good, we settle down to dig. Movies show paleontologists working with paintbrushes, but that doesn’t work well here in South Africa, where the rocks are hard and time is short. Instead, as soon as we know the dimensions of the fossil specimen, we cut around it with a diamond-bladed rock saw and use an industrial strength portable jackhammer to enlarge that cut into a deep trench. Once the trench is cut, we protect the fossil with a jacket made of layers of wet newsprint and hessian soaked in plaster-of-Paris. This protective layer is just like a cast the doctor might put on a broken arm, and it serves the same purpose – to keep the fossil bone from breaking while we haul it back to the lab.

Back in the lab, a team of skilled technicians carefully remove the rock from the fossil bone, slowly exposing the remains of an animal that last saw the sun in the Jurassic times! Thin layers of archival polymer glue are finally soaked into the bones, strengthening them and preparing them for hundreds of years of scientific study.

Local people have made many of our best discoveries. For example, last year, a preacher in the Eastern Cape took me to a fossil site discovered by a shepherd in his remote village. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There were fossils popping out of the ground every square metre over nearly a hectare. We’ve just started to explore this dinosaur ‘graveyard’, where dozens of skeletons of these giant animals (and other species) were carried onto the banks of an ancient river. Over the next three years, we will fully excavate this site in partnership with the community, who hope to build on the area’s scenic beauty with palaeotourism. We already know from our first year’s work that we have at least one new species of dinosaur to unveil soon!

More Day in the Life articles? CLICK HERE, to read about Sheila Funnell protecting the critically endangered Grevy’s zebra.

Written by Prof Jonah Choiniere 

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