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Taphonomy Tourism

This past summer, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to South Africa as an invited speaker at the 2016 Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa conference. To maximize the value of the long journey, my wife and I took a week-long trip up to Kruger National Park. We had a fantastic time driving through this natural wonder, logging more than 35 species of mammals and 95 species of birds.

The wildlife was of course spectacular, but as a paleontologist I'm always on the lookout for observations that bridge the world of the living and world of the dead. An unusually harsh drought has hit Kruger and the surrounding region, which in turn has placed a great deal of stress on the ecosystem. Although this is indeed tragic in many ways, it also presents some unique opportunities to observe taphonomy (the process of turning living organisms into fossils) firsthand. In this blog post, I'll share a few observations from that trip.

Hippo Skeleton With Gut Contents
Above: Hippo skeleton with gut contents

Firstly, there were a lot of hippo skeletons. The drought has forced hippos to wander far and wide from their usual habitats, attempting to sustain themselves on low-quality vegetation (as compared to their usual diets). Many are starving, even with bellies that appear full. Notably, the gut contents were visible on several of the carcasses I saw, even if the carcasses were in advanced stages of disarticulation and decomposition. This makes me wonder if we could be looking more diligently for similar features in the fossil record. We paleontologists commonly think that this type of preservation only occurs in pristine skeletons, and I suspect we are probably wrong on this.

Impala skull cap
Above: Impala skull cap; it's not too dissimilar from many fossil specimens in museum collections!

Second, I saw some classic "antelope holotype" specimens. In the fossil record, the skull caps preserving diagnostic horns--and lacking the rest of the skull--are commonly designated as new species (other body parts aren't nearly as distinctive to species, necessarily). It was interesting to see similar preservation in a modern context.

Above: A mostly disarticulated carcass

Finally, I was impressed by just how far skeletons can be scattered by the effects of scavengers and weathering. A single giraffe carcass can cover a huge area! One morning, we observed a jackal carrying an isolated antelope foot off across the grassland. In the Barstow Formation (Miocene age, California), associated yet isolated feet or wrist/ankle bone complexes are not uncommon. Although the tough ligaments binding the bones together are a definite factor, I wonder to what extent carnivore transport influences this type of preservation.

My Kruger trip was a good reminder of how the fossils we see in the ground are indeed the end-product of living organisms. Every bone tells a story, and we can read this story more clearly through the lenses of modern ecosystems.

--Dr. Andy Farke is the Augustyn Family Curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California.
Posted: 8/10/2016 6:21:34 PM by andyfarkeadmin | with 0 comments
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