fossil hunters’ South African paradise

The sun rises over the South African bush as scientists laden with backpacks climb a hillside.

They get down to work, carving into two immense blocks of stone that have concealed the secrets of an ancestor of modern-day crocodiles for some 200 million years.

Jonah Choiniere and his team from Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University had tracked the reptile from another age for three years.

The search brought them to a stretch of farmland in the central town of Rosendal, where they are surrounded by cattle and impalas.

“In 2015, one of my students just saw a few (fossilised) bones coming out,” said Choiniere, his shirt sticking to sweat from the morning’s hike.

“We started to excavate it and we brought it back to the lab and it turned out to be a hip of a species we’ve never seen before,” said the palaeontologist, who is originally from the United States.

The delicate excavation process at the site is grindingly slow and continues today.

Before being extracted, the stone surrounding a fossil is carefully enveloped in a protective layer of plaster.

After five hours of drying time, the stone is chiselled free, lifted by three strong people, and then transported by road nearly 300 kilometres (185 miles) to Johannesburg into the expert hands of Wilfred Bilankulu.

“My job is to make the fossils visible,” said the former fine arts student. “I’m taking off the jacket that has been put in place around the fossil, and after I prepare them using dental tools.”

Rare specimen 

The herculean task will take between eight and 12 months. A similar amount of time will be needed to meticulously examine, compare and describe the find.

Choiniere expected a bountiful haul even before he had the discovery in hand.

“This is a pretty good harvest for us. We didn’t know what to expect when we came into this quarry… I can say it’s much better than what we were expecting, very promising,” he said.

Given the bones already uncovered, Choiniere’s research student Rick Tolchard can barely hide his excitement.

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