Palaeo-micromammal Research - Thalassa Matthews


Researcher/Curator at Iziko:  Dr Thalassa Matthews

Since completion of my PhD* at the University of Cape Town in 2004 I have continued to research the micromammals from a number of palaeontological and archaeological sites from all over South Africa. Micromammals (the term ‘micromammals’ includes mice, rats, mole rats, moles and shrews) are used to find out information about past (palaeo) environments and climates, and thus help to provide a context for the archaeological research at a site. For example, changes in resource use or stone tool manufacture may be related to environmental changes which can be ascertained from a study of the associated micromammals.

Image: Thalassa looking at fossil rat teeth from Langebaanweg

More recently, I have started to study the fossil frogs from these sites as well. Both frogs and micromammals have a number of attributes which make them useful palaeoenvironmental indicators, namely, they have small home ranges, they do not migrate, and some species have specific habitat requirements. Frogs are highly sensitive to fluctuations in moisture levels and temperature, whereas micromammals respond more to changes in vegetation - thus used in tandem these taxa are highly complementary. 

Current research encompasses a large number of national and international collaborations and covers archaeological and palaeontological fossil sites from four south coast, three west coast, two east coast, and two Cradle of Humankind (Gauteng province) sites, and covers glacial/interglacial epochs from MIS (Marine Isotope Stage) 6 to MIS 1. I am also involved in on-going research into the frog and micromammal fossils from the 5 million year old site of Langebaanweg, now the site of the West Coast Fossil Park

Research aims to unravel the interwoven threads of climate change, geomorphology, and oceanography, by utilizing taxonomic and taphonomic studies of fossil micromammal and frog assemblages to study the response of terrestrial ecosystems to glacial/interglacial cycles along the South African coast, and interior. This research also aims to elucidate patterns of micromammalian and anuran (frog) evolution and migration from the early Pliocene to the present.

Peer-reviewed journal publications since 2015:

  1. Denys C., Matthews T., 2017. A new Desmodillus (Gerbillinae, Rodentia) species from the early Pliocene site of Langebaanweg (South-western Cape, South Africa). Palaeovertebrata. 41 (1)-e1. doi: 10.18563/pv.41.1.e1
  2. Matthews, T.,Measey, G.J.  Roberts, D. L.  2016. Implications of summer breeding frogs from Langebaanweg: regional climate evolution at 5.1 Mya. South African Journal of Science. Volume 112(9/10).DOI:
  3. Patterson, D. B. Lehmann  S.B., Matthews, T. , Levin, N. E., Stynder,D., Bishop, L. C., Braun, D.R. 2016. Stable isotope ecology of Cape dune mole-rats (Bathyergus suillus) from Elandsfontein, South Africa: Implications for C4 vegetation and hominin paleobiology in the Cape Floral Region. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.457:409–421.
  4. Matthews T. and du Plessis A.  2016.Using X-ray computed tomography analysis tools to compare the skeletal element morphology of fossil and modern frog (Anura) species.Palaeontologia Electronica 19.1.1T: 1-46.
  5. Matthews, T.,van Dijk,E., Roberts, D. L., Smith, R. M.H.  2015.  An early Pliocene (5.1 Mya) fossil frog community from Langebaanweg, south-western Cape, South Africa.  African Journal of Herpetology.64(1):39-53.
  6. Braun. D.R., Levin N.E., StynderD. D., Herries  A.I. H.,  Archer W., Forrest F.,  Roberts  D.L., Bishop L.C.,  MatthewsT.,  LehmannS., Pickering R.,  Fitzsimmons K. 2013.  Pleistocene Hominin Occupation at Elandsfontein, Western Cape, South Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews. 82:145-166.
  7. Brown, K. S., Marean, C.W., Jacobs, Z.,  Schoville,  B. J., Oestmo, S., Fisher, E.C., Bernatchez, J.,  Karkanas, P., and Matthews, T.  2012.  An Early and Enduring Advanced Technology Originating 71,000 Years Ago in South Africa.  491:590-593. Nature.
  8. Paine, O.C.C,  Sponheimer, M.,  Sandburg, P.,  Ruiter, D.D.E.,  Codron, D.,   Avenant, N., Matthews, T. 2012. Using mammalian microfauna to reconstruct Hominin paleohabitats in South Africa.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 147:191-191.

*PhD thesis entitled ‘The taphonomy and taxonomy of Mio-Pliocene and late Middle Pleistocene micromammals from the Cape west coast, South Africa’


Natural History Department

Iziko Museums of Cape Town

25 Queen Victoria Street

Cape Town


Tel: (+27)21 481 3877

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