On his 3 500km search for fossils of giant dinosaurs, Dale Morris finally comes face to face with the dear little mother of all mammals…bipedal lizards.
When I first started my trip across South Africa and Lesotho in search of fossils, I would have told you that five million years in the past was a long, long time ago and that dinosaurs were the coolest creatures to have graced this earth.
But apparently they aren’t. Well, not as far as Dr Pippa Haarhoff, curator of the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaan is concerned. “Five million years ago is just yesterday,” she told me, while crawling through a large pile of bones at the bottom of a metre-deep pit. “And the dinosaurs were already long gone.”
“But look there,” she said, pointing to a protruding jaw. “That’s part of a giant, short-necked giraffe, and this here is an extinct species of dolphin.” She indicated pieces of whale, the remains of a giant hippo and an unknown species of penguin, all piled together at the bottom of the ditch.
“Five million years ago the Langebaan area was a lush mangrove swamp teaming with marine and terrestrial animals, many the recognisable ancestors of species we are familiar with today. You would have found elephants although they had four tusks. There were also hyenas, hominids, seals, sabre-tooth cats, dolphins, turtles and frogs.”
“So no dinosaurs?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “But we did have a giant predatory bear terrorising the neighbourhood, and that, in my books, is more interesting than a dinosaur.”
We had left the excavation pits with their jumbled carcasses and moved to the park’s small museum where bones, skulls and replica models were displayed in glass cases.
“No one expected to find a bear in Africa,” she said. “Let alone a giant like this one.” Gently she opened a case and lifted a huge, yellowing jawbone. “At 750 kilograms, it was the largest predator of the time and had the most devastating jaw pressure of any animal.” I looked at the wickedly curved fangs, and then at the scale-model bear in the next display case. Scary stuff.
My family and I had had a wonderful day at the West Coast Fossil Park. We had seen real scientists at work cataloguing finds (thousands of specimens have been discovered here). We had enjoyed a very lively guided tour through the various dig sites. But best of all was an interactive dig where the kids and I spent several happy hours unearthing fake fossils from a sandpit at the back of the centre.
But we did so want to see dinosaurs.
“You’ll have to travel east for that,” Pippa told me. And so we did, all the way up to the Morija Guest House, a quaint little lodge set in the rolling hills of western Lesotho, where we met Kefuoe Namane, a local cow herder turned amateur fossil guide.
We had taken a short stroll from the back of the lodge into the surrounding countryside in search of Lesotho’s famous dinosaur footprints, and it didn’t take long to find some. “These would have been left behind by a massospondylus, one of the first true dinosaurs.” He told me. “They are perhaps 190 million years old.”
‘That certainly puts Pippa’s five-million-year-old bear in its place,’ I thought to myself. But, as I was to discover, even at 190 million years of age these fossil footprints are still quite young compared to others that have been found.
“Lesotho has many such fossil sites,” Kefuoe told me. We were visiting the world-famous display of the most intact set of dinosaur footprints on Earth, stored in a weatherproof hanger in Quthing in south-western Lesotho. “You can find footprints on public roads in Lesotho, on the sides of almost any cliff. Even on the roof of caves and on the stone steps of churches. But this one is special.” He pointed to a wonky line of small chicken-feet shapes.
“These were made by our very own Lesothosaurus. A dinosaur no bigger than a goose but probably at least 18 million years older than massospondylus.” So now we had gone back to around 210 million years, a figure rather hard to get my head around. Try counting. Assuming you count back one year every second (and don’t pause to eat or drink or sleep or anthying else) it will take you 6.6 years (give or take) to reach that time.
A few days later, we travelled to Golden Gate and Clarens in the Eastern Free State, where we met eminent palaeontologist Dr Gideon Groenewald and his son David. “Ah, but even 210 million years ago is not so very long,” David told us as we walked with him along a small, dry river bed outside town.
David was busy pointing out footprints and drag marks, while his Dad offered up all sorts of commentary on what we were seeing. “This was an antetonitrus, possibly the first of the long-necked sauropods,” he said, placing his hands and feet into four large fossilised holes in the ground. “And this is the direction in which it walked.”
He began ambling along the track on all fours like a tortoise. His dad followed suit. Step by step these two affable dinosaur experts brought a flat piece of rock to life by mimicing the creatures that had passed by hundreds of millions of years ago. I closed my eyes and saw it all. The ponderous four-legged giants, the agile bipedal lizards, and the smaller scuttling creatures of the era…
I asked David about actual fossils. Could I see them anywhere, but he told me that most South African dinosaur fossil finds end up being housed in a museum. “During the 70s, the oldest-known nest of dinosaur eggs was unearthed just next door in Golden Gate National Park. But you would have to travel to museums overseas if you wanted to actually see them.”
A shame, I thought, but then David told me about the Karoo. “Go to Nieu-Bethesda or the Karoo National Park if you want to see real fossilised bones,” he said. “There’s no shortage of them, but don’t expect dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are way too young for the Karoo.”
Dinosaurs young? What could be older than dinosaurs? Cynodonts, apparently. “They were the first mammal-like creatures and, as such, were very important in the grand scheme of things.” I was with Jan Steynberg looking at a resin replica of a tiny little creature housed in the Ganora Guest Farm Fossil Museum near Nieu-Bethesda.
We had already traipsed across his sheep farm in the Karoo where he had shown me actual fossils of giant therapsids, and we had brushed away sediment next to a river to find a toothsome, leopard-like gorgonopsid. “These date back to around 300 million years ago,” he told me back at the museum. “Long before dinosaurs ruled the Earth.”
On his tour of the farm, Jan described what the landscape of his arid Karoo property would have looked like way back then. “The Karoo was a swamp, a wet and humid place rather like today’s Okavango Delta. But instead of elephants and lions you would have found four-legged dicynodonts with big tusks, and sabre-toothed gorgonopsids slinking in the shadows.”
You also would have found the diminutive little cynodonts. They lived in burrows and somehow survived the great Permian Extinction, a global-warming event that wiped out about 95 per cent of living creatures on the planet.
“They must have been very clever and resilient,” said Jan, looking down at the little model in his hand. If cynodonts had not survived, and had been gobbled up by gorgonopsids or succumbed to the droughts and starvation of the era, there would be no mammals in existence today. No mammals. No humans. “Thanks gramps,” I said to the little resin model. “I owe you one.”
During our weekend stay at Ganora, Jan showed us many fossils, all unearthed on his farm. But although he had plenty of illustrations and miniature models of the creatures, I still couldn’t get a real feel for their size and power.
“For that,” he told me, “you will need to visit the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu-Bethesda.” And so we did. And there we met Julius, a life-size dicynodont standing about a metre tall, with a physique akin to an oversized pit bull terrier. Two dagger-like tusks jutted from beneath a tortoise-shaped beak, behind which were two beady eyes.
If JuJu were real and not made from fibreglass there’d be enough musculature in that bulbous yet small-brained head to snap a fence post in half. “A necessary adaptation to eating tough vegetation,” said museum guide Gerrit Baard.
“And probably quite useful for defence, especially against one of these.” He pointed to a ferocious gorgonopsid standing next to the dicynodont. Sharp, curved teeth vied for space in his huge cavernous mouth. He was bigger and stronger than the dicynodont and looked most unfriendly. I decided to call him Jacob.
The Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre (named for a prominent palaeontologist James Kitching) was a fitting place to end my travels back through time. The museum itself is fascinating and the guides are lively in their narration. But it’s not just a public facility. Within its walls there is still important fossil research, as Gerrit demonstrated when he showed me a recent find.
“This piece of rock contains the fossil of a gorgonopsid,” he told me, while donning a pair of magnifying glasses. “And it will take about two years of very patient work to extract it.” Then he went to work, chiselling away at the stone with a dentist’s pneumatic drill.
The tour and my nationwide fossil adventure ended with Gerrit and my family at a nearby shale bed where fossils are often found. “Do you have what it takes to be a palaeontologist?” he asked my kids, and then gave them instructions on what they should be looking for. We scoured the rock faces and peered at pieces of stone through a magnifying glass until my son let out an exuberant whoop.
“Got one,” he shouted, and so he had. A small bone, clearly visible among flaky shale, stood out in sharp relief. “That would likely be a cynodont,” he told us “and it could be 300 million years old.”
I had undertaken this fossil-finding trip in the hope of seeing giant dinosaurs mere millions of years old; the creatures in my encyclopaedias that I had grown up with. But instead, my family and I had travelled around 3 500km and gone back 300 million years, only to discover that the most fascinating of all ancient life forms was not Tyrannosaurus rex or velociraptors but rather a tiny cynodont. The mother of us all.
- All the fossil sights visited in this story are open to the public.
- Ganora Guest Farm near Nieu-Bethesda has a private fossil museum, knowledgeable guides and self-catering cottages. www.ganora.co.za
- James Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre, entrance from R20 a person. Cell 082 387 9224, email [email protected]
- Karoo National Park near Beaufort West has self-catering cottages and a campsite, and a very interesting fossil trail relating to Permian Era specimens. www.sanparks.org
- Morija Guest House in Lesotho has catered and self-catering options, plus horse rides, cultural excursions and guided fossil trips (ask for Kefuoe Namane). www.morijaguesthouses.com
- Clarens has plenty of lodging and dining options for all budgets – visit www.clarenstourism.co.za and phone David Groenewald on 083 469 4703 to arrange a fossil tour.
- West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaan offers guided tours of the facility, as well as a kiddies play area, snack bar and gift shop, museum and interactive fossil dig. www.fossilpark.org.za
Years ago Period
- 4.6 billion: Formation of Earth
- 298-250 million – Permian Period: Much of what is now South Africa is dominated by swamps and meandering rivers. Dicynodonts and gorgonopsids are common but their line eventually dies out.
- 250 million – Permian Mass Extinction: About 95 per cent of all species (including plants) become extinct, most probably due to climate change.
- 250-200 million – Triassic Period: Some cynodonts and their offshoots (mammal-like creatures) survive and adapt to drier conditions. There are many different types of reptiles, some that evolve into dinosaurs, others that give rise to the pterosaurs (flying reptiles).
- 200-145 million – Jurassic Period: The dinosaurs have had millions upon millions of years to evolve into countless different forms. The world is dominated by the largest land animals to have lived. It’s tough being a mammal, but we survive by being inconspicuous and small (by the way, at this time mammals are merely shrew-like creatures).
- 145-65 million – Cretaceous Period: The supercontinents of earlier time periods have now split into a close-ish approximation of what we see today. Due to global warming, sea levels are much higher and giant marine reptiles dominate the oceans. Dinosaurs, both large and small, continue to rule the land but birds and mammals are becoming more common. Flowers show up for the first time in the Earth’s history.
- 65-2.6 million – Tertiary Period: A giant rock measuring some 9km across smacks down in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. Not good. At least as far as the dinosaurs are concerned. Massive volcanoes erupt and the sun is blacked out by clouds of dust. There are drastic long-term weather changes. The only dinosaur family to survive is the birds. Unlike dinosaurs, mammals are very happy about the cataclysm. They adapt, evolve and fill many of the ecological voids left behind by dinosaurs.
- 2.6 million to present – Quaternary Period or the Age of Humans: Lots of glacial periods and global weather change cause worldwide extinctions of many forms of large mammals (think woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth tigers). Humans, who have been hanging out on the sidelines as apes and hominids, more or less suddenly turn up and become very proficient at killing things. Climate change continues (as it always has), sea levels rise (as they always have), and entire species die out (as they always do). Towards the end of the Quaternary, these processes are hastened along at breakneck speed by the ingenuity of man. We have become the equivalent of the Tertiary meteorite. Homo sapiens will wipe out many present-day species including themselves. Accelerated climate change will wipe out many of the rest. It cannot be predicted what animals will rise to fill the ecological voids left behind, but they will. They always do.