South Africa: Fossils Tell the Mammal Story

A rare collection of original fossils that evolved over a period of 120-million years, dating back even further than the discovery of early hominids, is on display at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind.

The new exhibition is a collaboration between Maropeng and the Bernard Price Institute (BPI) for Palaeontological Research at Wits University, to celebrate the university's 90th anniversary.

The fossils on display, which offer an extraordinary glimpse into what came before dinosaurs, are a small selection of pieces from the institute's prized original fossil collection.

At a glance the items on display might look like nothing more than pieces of rock, but a closer inspection reveals that they are palaeontological finds with great significance.

These fossils are helping scientists piece together the puzzle of human and mammal evolution.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, BPI director Prof Bruce Rubidge explained that the fossils on show reveal important information about the development of mammal-like reptiles, which over hundreds of millions of years gradually evolved into mammals.

"All fossils displayed here are our ancestors," says Rubidge.

What scientists saw in their study of these fossils is that over time our primitive reptilian ancestors gradually acquired more mammal-like features. "This means we can trace the entire evolutionary development of mammals," he explains.

Rubidge explains that about 300-million years ago, when terrestrial ecosystems started to develop, the only animals with backbones were fish and amphibians.

The Karoo region records a long period of geological ancestry of three groups of reptiles that gave rise to tortoises, dinosaurs, lizards, snakes and small mammals. "This whole evolution is encapsulated in these rocks in the Karoo," he says.

SA's rich fossil heritage

This collection of fossils is even more noteworthy because of its origins in rocks in the Karoo region, dating back 180- to 300-million years ago.

"What is amazing about South Africa's Karoo rock is that it is an almost continuous sedimentary record of palaeontological history for a period of 120-million years," explains Rubidge.

"It is the only place in the world with such an extensive and continuous record."


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