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From the Field: Heading Out to Rusinga Island

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harcourt_smith_packing

Will Harcourt-Smith gets a vehicle ready for the field. 

Photo: W. Harcourt-Smith.


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.

Nairobi, Kenya, June 18, 2011

I’ve been in Kenya about a week and things are finally coming together. As anyone who works in the expeditionary world will tell you, it’s always a bit chaotic before you leave, and the run-up can sometimes feel a bit like preparing for a military campaign. There are permits to obtain, supplies to procure, vehicles to hire, and a myriad of other little things to get ready. And, of course, as paleontologists there are all sorts of strange extras that you have to hunt down: plaster and bandages to package fossils, specimen bags, rock hammers, and the like.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone on our team is here. We have people from all over the world, from senior scientists to undergraduates coming on their first expedition. Tomorrow we’ll drive west from Nairobi, down the giant eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, and then up the other side until we reach Lake Victoria. These days the roads are pretty good, and it should take about eight hours or so.

Our destination is called Rusinga Island. It sits in the Kenyan waters of the lake, and is one of the most important fossil sites in Africa.  For one, the island produces an incredibly rich and diverse array of fossil organisms, including delicate plant and seed remains, tiny rodents and lizards, giant ancestors of today’s elephants and rhinos, and even exquisitely preserved fossil insects.

Derek Nelson (L) and Brian Shearer (R), two students who work at the Museum with Harcourt-Smith, take a break from sorting through equipment for the field. Photo: W. Harcourt-Smith.

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Derek Nelson (L) and Brian Shearer (R), two students who work at the Museum with Harcourt-Smith, take a break from sorting through equipment for the field. 

Photo: W. Harcourt-Smith.


It’s also where we find some of the very first true apes in the fossil record, which is one of the reasons I’m there. These animals are named Proconsul (meaning “before Consul,” which was a popular name for circus chimpanzees in the 1920s) and lived at the beginning of the Miocene Era, about 20–18 million years ago.  Proconsul sits at the very base of the evolutionary tree that includes all living apes (humans included). If you want to understand why the various apes that lived today evolved in the way that they did, one thing you have to do is go right back to the beginning.

The great thing about Rusinga is that the fossil richness and species diversity also allows us an unparalleled snapshot into what the ancient environment would have been like back then, which is hugely helpful in shedding light on the biology of Proconsul, why it evolved, and what might have happened to it.

That’s it for now. I have to catch some sleep as it’s a long drive tomorrow…….

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