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Fossil hunting for the ancient big five

Fossil hunting for the ancient big five

This article was originally published in our magazine way back in 2010. Not much has changed since then, apart from the fact that in March 2012 the provincial heritage resources authority, Heritage Western Cape significantly expanded the area that is protected under the park’s auspices.

‘‘These fossils got me thinking,” says Nicky Engelbrecht, as we drive slowly to the dig site at the West Coast Fossil Park at Langebaanweg. “I was working as a gardener here, but I could just imagine this place as a tropical paradise millions of years ago, with ancient animals living here. The fossils were a whole other world.” Driven by fascination, within two years Nicky changed his job from gardener to fossil guide at the West Coast Fossil Park. Now, eight years later, he’s still captivated by fossils every day.

“When I started here evolution really gave me nightmares,” laughs Nicky, and he shakes his head. “A visiting professor told me I came from a fish. I said ‘no ways’, so I asked my manager and she told me the same. From a fish? I thought I came from my mom and dad,” he jokes. “Now I understand life on earth started in water. Without water there is nothing.”

A national heritage site

west coast fossil park
As we walk slowly down the boardwalk to the covered fossil dig site, Nicky stops and points to the surrounding landscape. “This whole area was an open-cast phosphate mine until 1993,” says Nicky. “And millions of years ago the sea level was 90m higher. The ocean went all the way to Piketberg, so where we are standing now was deep under the sea.”

The mine initially uncovered the rich fossil beds, but destroyed 80% of deposits at the same time. Despite this, over a million fossils have been excavated from the immediate area and the site would simply not have been discovered had it not been for the mining. Palaeontologist Pippa Haarhoff initiated the West Coast Fossil Park project when she heard that the mine was planning to close down and was afraid that the site would also be closed for further research. The park opened in 1998 and remains the only fossil park in South Africa. Pippa still manages the park which is now about 700 hectares and a National Heritage Site.

“Just imagine giant hunting bears, huge sabre‑toothed cats, elephants, hippos, rhinos and massive and unusual short-necked, long-horned giraffes living here in a tropical landscape,” says Nicky, as he continues to identify fossil remains at the dig site. “All these animals, along with birds, frogs and smaller mammals, like dune molerats and rabbits, have left their legacy here, telling us of their lives on the West Coast five million years ago. But that’s just the top layer.”

As you dig deeper, the fossil remains change and are even older. The next level is a marine layer with fossils of shells, seals and whales, some of these intermingling with those of terrestrial mammals. The tour group listens intently as Nicky talks and points out the different fossils lying in situ. Then he changes pace completely and drops in a statement that has the group puzzled.

“Did you know whales were once like wolves on earth,” says Nicky, “and they only went to sea because food was scarce? It’s true. Whales don’t have fish bones but mammal bones and they don’t swim like fish either. They also give birth to live young and suckle them because they once lived on land. And birds come from flying dinosaurs.”

African hunting bears

west coast fossil park
By now the group looks a little shell-shocked – Evolution 101 in ten minutes. But Nicky is open for questions and answers them adeptly and with humour. “Some people don’t believe bones can be this old,” says Nicky. “They just refuse to consider that anything could be millions of years old, even if the evidence is all here.” He paints a fascinating picture of the past, embellished as palaeontologists excavate more and more of the park that is now a declared National Heritage Site.

What’s unique about this park is that otherwise meaningless fossils are brought to life and visitors can enjoy an interactive experience that’s both interesting and informative. There are also complementary displays and facilities. The old mine buildings are now an educational centre and house a library, lecture room, fossil laboratory, shop and tea room – ensuring a full experience of the park.

Pippa says the most dominant animal being excavated at the park is an animal called Hendey’s sivathere (Sivatherium hendeyi). This was a huge long-horned, short-necked giraffe-like herbivore that roamed the area – its skull was about 1,5m long. But most surprising of the finds so far may be the first bear remains ever found south of the Sahara.

So far the remains of at least 11 of these huge, long-legged African hunting bears have been unearthed, and it’s believed they were the top predator in the area during the early Pliocene period. Five species of hyena have also been discovered.

Mass extinction event

west coast fossil park
The hipparion, or three-toed horse, also inhabited the area and has been useful for getting a maximum age for the site as hipparion first appeared in Africa about 12 million years ago. The extinct sabre-toothed cat and the gomphothere elephant are reminiscent of today’s big five, along with an ancient rhino and buffalo that lived in the area. An extinct true seal and four extinct penguin species have also showed up in excavations, together with whales and sharks.

“Over 200 different species have been discovered at the fossil park so far,” says Pippa, “which is now >> >> believed to contain the greatest diversity of five-million-year-old fossils on earth.” But questions still remain: What caused the extinction of many of these species? Was it a catastrophic flood or something else?

“We are currently experiencing another mass extinction event,” says Pippa. “It started about 10 000 years ago. The study of fossils has helped us get a better understanding of past extinction events, and places like the fossil park are important because they help to show how life on earth changes through time. Research here even helps us understand climate change and the role of humans in the current environmental crisis.”

Purely fun side

horse trails and walks
But there’s a purely fun side to the fossil park too, with horse trails winding past the dig site and mountain bike outings to enjoy the rugged outdoors. There are nature hikes and trails too, and a bird hide for twitchers. The whole family can also enjoy the fossil displays and home-baked goodies in the coffee shop.

“The site gets people of all ages and backgrounds thinking about a bigger picture of life, and how life changes through time,” adds Pippa. “It definitely puts our lives in perspective.” It’s also a wake-up call, conveyed by stone bones through the stories they tell across millions of years. Whales from wolves, birds from flying dinosaurs. Nicky is right, it’s almost too much to get your head around.

The West Coast Fossil Park open daily, 022 766 1606, www.sawestcoast.com/fossil.html. Nature walks, hikes and mountain bike trails are also offered through the park. Windstone Horse Trails 022 766 1645, www.windstone.co.za


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