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From the Field: Fossil Leaves and Mammals

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Blogging from west Kenya, William Harcourt-Smith, a research associate in the Division of Paleontology, is directing a 20-million-year-old paleontological site on two islands in Lake Victoria. One of these islands, Rusinga, is best known as the site of the discovery of the first fossils of Proconsul, an early ape. Harcourt-Smith’s multidisciplinary team includes physical anthropologists and geologists, and in addition to collecting fossils, researchers are trying to learn more about the evolutionary events and environmental conditions that may have influenced the emergence of Proconsul and other early ape lineages.

Rusinga Island, Kenya, July 12, 2011

It’s late and I’m sitting outside my tent looking across Lake Victoria. There are thousands of tiny lights along the horizon, as far as you can see. It’s the local fishermen using lamps to attract a small species of fish that’s a staple of the local diet. It’s a beautiful sight—something I never tire of seeing.

Yesterday, the crew from Science Bulletins, the Museum’s innovative online and exhibition program, arrived in camp. Led by Sandya Viswanathan, they’re shooting a feature about our projects on Rusinga. Today they filmed the excavations at Kaswanga, and lots of team members spoke to the camera about what they were working on, some for the first time. The piece will eventually go up in the Museum’s Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, and will be syndicated to other institutions around the world. It’s exciting, and personally I’m thrilled, as it will help generate a better understanding of why we are working here and why it’s such a special place.

Back to fieldwork, and the Kaswanga site has produced more fabulous finds. On the last day of excavations, remains were discovered of yet another large mammal, an extinct relative of modern elephants called a deinothere. The team removed what they could, but some bones had to be carefully covered up and the excavation pits refilled. We’ll have to take them out next time we’re there. One of the clichés of paleontology is that you often find the good stuff on the last day. It’s been a bumper year for this site, and a potent reminder of how chance plays a role in the process of finding fossils, as this particular spot was not originally slated for excavation. Kaswanga is also producing some remarkable fossil leaves. So far we have at least 26 plant species, and the next step is to correlate them with the fossil animals we are finding. It’s exciting because having fossil plants and animals in the same geological layer will be a huge help in our effort to reconstruct the ancient environment on Rusinga.

We also spent a couple of days surface collecting at a beautiful locality called Nyamsingula. It’s a steep series of gullies and small canyons way up on top of the island, and can be challenging for all but the most sure-footed. We only had a few spare people to work at what is probably the island’s biggest locality, but still managed to collect some great fossils.

We’ve got a day or two left and then it’s back to Nairobi. It’s a bit sad on one level—I love the field—but a hot shower and a decent bed will be most welcome.

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