Taxonomy and Palaeoecology of marine mammals from south- western South Africa


South African palaeontology documents the rise of plants, the transition to land by vertebrates, as well as the evolution of the early ancestors of mammals. The Karoo deposits document 100 million years of continuous sedimentation (from the Permo-Carboniferous to the early Jurassic), while later sites from around the country document the gradual changes in the environment and animal and human evolution. Along the west coast of South Africa, there are a number of fossil sites but the most prolific and best known is the Early Pliocene (5 million year old) Langebaanweg (LBW) (West Coast Fossil Park). The site preserves marine and terrestrial sedimentation environments. Remains of seals, dolphins and whales are among the fossils recovered from this former phosphate mine.

My focus currently is a study of the marine mammal fossils from Langebaanweg. We know a fair amount about the terrestrial palaeoenvironment at LBW, however, we known very little about the marine component. This is also true for a number of other sites along the South African coast. This lack of knowledge about the marine environment as well as the associated animal communities has spurred my research on fossil marine mammals. I started with LBW and the first step has been to understand the diversity and taxonomy of the seals and to identify the cetacean community represented at the site. I then plan to study the anatomy and taxonomy of marine mammal fossils from other west coast sites.

The long-term goal is to reconstruct the marine palaeoecology at LBW and to extend this to the coast of SA. 

I am also preparing to embark on an anatomical, taxonomic and evolutionary analysis of the small carnivores at LBW, since no detailed studies have been undertaken on the various taxa and their palaeoecology and, according to Werdelin (2006); they have an important bearing on the evolution of carnivores in Africa. 

Current Projects

  • Description and taxonomy of the cetacean community at LBW (with Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan from UCT).
  • Stable isotope reconstruction of the Pliocene Langebaanweg marine community (with Daniel Thomas UCT and Yasemin Tulu formerly of UCT).
  • A phylogenetic analysis of the fossil phocid seals from LBW and their taxonomic relationships.
  • Comparison of the seals and cetaceans with other contemporaneous sites along SA coast.
  • Analysis of shark tooth marks on the cetacean bones from LBW (with Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan).
  • Continued analysis of palaeopathologies on the vertebrate skeletons at LBW (including marine and terrestrial) (see Govender et al 2011 on the seals).
  • Taphonomic study of the seals and cetaceans from LBW (with Graham Avery Iziko South African Museum).

Reconstruction of the marine palaeoenvironment at LBW and other South African coastal regions.

Analysis of the small carnivores from LBW and their significance to the evolution of carnivores in Africa.