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Angola Fossils Bring A New But Familiar Ocean in View

These fossils are the patrimony of Angola, these are their heritage, and for us to be able to bring them to the Smithsonian and ultimately back to Angola.

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Angola Fossils
This full-size fossil reconstruction of a sea turtle from the prehistoric South Atlantic looks very similar to the giant sea turtles which still swim in our oceans today. VOA

Some may be familiar with mythical sea monsters. For example, Scotland’s infamous Loch Ness Monster “Nessie,” and Giganto — fictional beasts of comic book fame. But millions of years ago, real-life sea monsters lived and thrived in what we now call the South Atlantic Ocean.

South Atlantic Ocean basin

As the continents of South America and Africa separated millions of years ago, scientists say a fantastic array of ferocious predators and other lifeforms colonized the newly formed body of water off the coast of Angola.

That diverse collection of marine reptiles included mosasaurs (aquatic lizards), plesiosaurs (which exhibited broad flat bodies, large paddlelike limbs, and typically a long flexible neck and small head), and the more familiar giant sea turtles.

But a catastrophic asteroid that hit earth 66 million years ago wiped most of them out, according to scientists.

Today, thanks to a project called Projecto PaleoAngola among Angolan, American, Portuguese and Dutch researchers, paleontologists have been able to visit the coastal cliffs of Angola to excavate and study what remains of these giant animals.

“We knew that there were fossils there, we just didn’t know how good they would be,” says Louis Jacobs, collaborating curator and professor emeritus of paleontology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

“Nobody had been there, so this was a vast, unknown terrain and we wanted to get there.”

A 72-million year-old ecosystem

What the team of paleontologists discovered was a treasure trove, giving them an unprecedented look into a strange yet familiar ecosystem.

In addition to mosasaurs, plesiosaurs and sea turtles, there were fossilized remains of a variety of fish and other marine life forms.

Angola, fossils
Modern cliffs of coastal Angola where Projecto PaleoAngola paleontologists excavate fossils of life that once lived in Angola’s ancient seas. VOA

While mosasaurs have been known to exist on all continents and are relatively common in certain places, this particular sample is the largest collection of southern hemisphere mosasaurs known, according to the paleontologists.

“It’s certainly the best locality for these kinds of animals in sub-Saharan Africa and it could be one of the best in the world,” Jacobs said.

Rediscovering a lost world

Eleven authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size reconstructions of a mosasaur and an ancient sea turtle are on display for the first time in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, titled “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas.”

There are also 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls, and photo-murals and video vignettes transport visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearthed the fossil remains from this lost world.

 

Angola, fosiils
The seafaring lizard Prognathodon kianda was a top predator in the Cretaceous waters. Scientists named this species after Kianda, the ruler of the ocean in Angolan mythology. VOA

 

Jacobs, who was part of a team of scientists and students at SMU that helped prepare the fossils for the Smithsonian exhibit, says any visitor “can look and see and compare how the ecosystem and its animals of the cretaceous of 72 million years ago are similar to ecosystems today in the same general areas.”

“The species are different, but the ecological jobs of the species are very similar,” he added.

Giant lizards

Michael Polcyn, senior research fellow at SMU, pointed out an example in the exhibit.

Standing in front of a fossil skull and partial skeleton of a mosasaur, he described the reptile as an “optimized fish eater.”

“You see the long narrow snout, the interlocking teeth — this would be similar to what you would see in the ocean today, in a dolphin for instance,” he said.

He gestured to a graphic posted on the display case depicting a rough toothed dolphin which it described as “the analog for the animal in the modern ecosystem.”

Angola Fossils
An artist’s rendering of Angola’s Cretaceous seas 72 million years ago, dominated by many species of large, carnivorous marine reptiles. VOA

Shell-crushing mosasaur

Another great example of diversity within that ancient ecosystem is the hardshell-eating mosasaur, Polcyn said, which preyed on large oysters which were almost a meter (three feet) across.

“They were really big, so to crack an oyster three feet across you needed the dentition and the musculature to do that, and that’s what you see here in these very strange mushroom-shaped teeth that you see in this animal,” Polcyn explained.

Within the same ecosystem was another example of a top predator, the Prognathodon kianda. Its full-scale skeleton on display in the museum is almost eight meters long.

In addition to top predators like the monster-like mosasaur, the exhibit also includes fossils of gentler creatures; small fish and an ancient giant sea turtle.

“We have a snapshot of this moment in time 72 million years ago that has preserved all of these animals that were living together in one place,” Polcyn said.

Angola Fossils
This mosasaur fossil skull shows how its mushroom-shaped teeth were optimized to crack hard-shell prey like giant oysters. VOA

The big dig

Jacobs says the fossil find in Angola was a big deal for a number of reasons:

“First of all because it’s going into a country that never really had a heritage of fossils,” he said. “It basically was unknown at the level that we are opening it up.”

“Fossils,” he says, “instill a sense of pride in what’s in the country, and it provides something to use for education, and it builds science. And the way it builds science is because every country has fossils, so every country has something to offer, so every country is a piece of the puzzle and the Angola piece is now there.”

Michael Polcyn agrees that unearthing this cache of ancient fossils has been a huge breakthrough on a number of fronts.

Also Read: New Artifacts Found in Cairo, Egypt: Archaeologists

“From a purely scientific point of view it gives us an incredible window into an ecosystem 72 million years ago that is relatively complete,” he says. “From a very human point of view this really shows the people of Angola, and the people of the world, what incredible resources we have in our natural environments.”

And lastly, he says, “These fossils are the patrimony of Angola, these are their heritage, and for us to be able to bring them to the Smithsonian and ultimately back to Angola, on a very personal level, is a thrill for us.” (VOA)

Next Story

Dinosaurs Once-in A Lifetime Fossil Saved from Australian Floods

Steve Poropat, a paleontologist at Swinburne University in Melbourne says the footprints were saved from recent monsoonal flooding in Queensland.

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A small dinosaur fossil is seen in this undated handout photo from Australian customs. The largest-ever haul of illegally exported fossils was formally handed back from the Australian Government to the Chinese Government during a ceremony in Perth, Sept. 30, 2005. VOA

A team of Australian paleontologists and volunteers has saved a once-in a lifetime fossil discovery from devastating floods in Queensland state.

The dinosaur tracks give a rare insight into an ancient world. Found on an outback farm near the Queensland town of Winton, 1,100 kms from Brisbane, they are estimated to be almost 100 million years old.

The footprints are stamped into a large slab of sandstone rock, and were made by a sauropod, a giant creature with a long neck and tail, and by two smaller dinosaurs. Some of the footprints are up to a meter wide and come from the Cretaceous period.

Scientists were alerted to the danger posed to this remarkable collection when it was partly damaged by severe flooding last year.

For three weeks scientists and volunteers worked to carefully dig up and relocate the dinosaur tracks.

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Scientists were alerted to the danger posed to this remarkable collection when it was partly damaged by severe flooding last year. Pixabay

They are being stored at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum in Winton, where they will eventually go on display.

David Elliott is the museum’s executive chairman.

“We really want to preserve the integrity of the tracks. We do not want to just tear them up and go and lock them on the ground somewhere. You know, they have to be done a certain way. We cannot just leave it here because that is, you know, [a] find of a lifetime.”

Dinosaur tracks are rare in Australia.

Steve Poropat, a paleontologist at Swinburne University in Melbourne says the footprints were saved from recent monsoonal flooding in Queensland.

“The imperative was to get those soft footprints out of the ground because they just would not have lasted in another flood now that they have been fully exposed. To get it all out of the ground, to ma

fossils
The dinosaur tracks give a rare insight into an ancient world. Found on an outback farm near the Queensland town of Winton, 1,100 kms from Brisbane, they are estimated to be almost 100 million years old. Pixabay

ke sure that it is safe from future floods is fantastic,” he said.

 

Monsoonal rains in Queensland have caused chaos, flooding hundreds of homes and drowning several hundred thousand livestock. Officials said it was a one-in-100-year event, and they have warned it could take years to rebuild the local cattle industry.

Also Read: Frequent High-Tide Flooding May Affect Coastal Communities’ Economy

As the floodwaters recede on land, they are polluting parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Experts say plumes of polluted water are stretching up to 60 kms from the coast, putting more pressure on coral that has suffered mass bleaching in recent years. When ocean temperatures increase, corals can expel the algae that live in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white.

The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s greatest natural treasure and stretches 2,300 kms down Australia’s northeast coastline. (VOA)