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On map 2, the southern orange star is the location of Cape Town, and the northern blue star represents the West Coast Fossil Park. The subset region 3 is expanded to show the present sea level conditions 3A and the situation 5. At that time, the site occupied by the fossil park would have been near the coast where the ancient Berg River emptied into the Atlantic. How do we know what the ancient Earth was like before people were around to witness and record conditions?

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One of the main ways geoscientists unravel past climates and ecosystems is by conducting detailed studies of deposits that contain the preserved remains of ancient plants and animals. The formation of fossils is generally a rare occurrence, so finding pockets of concentrated, or highly detailed, fossil remains is scientifically valuable. In such sites the soft parts of an organism, which normally decay, are recorded as impressions or carbon films. While these sites do not provide many fine details of the organisms, they can provide a glimpse of an ancient ecosystem by concentrating the bones of animals that would normally be spread across a wide area.

Watershed geology

The numerous remains within these fossiliferous beds provide important information about the biologic communities and climate of the region around 5 million years ago. Phosphates are mined today mainly for their use in fertilizers, and phosphoric acid is commonly used in soft drinks.

These rocks however, were initially mined for use in World War II armaments. Sedimentary phosphate deposits are produced in regions of high marine biologic productivity, like the modern continental shelves. Due to changing conditions, sea level in this case, regions previously underwater are now exposed on land and accessible for detection and excavation. Active mining at the fossil site ceased in when the mine closed, and the area where fossils had been discovered was set aside as a National Monument soon to become a National Heritage Site.

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Phosphatic rock with organic material: A centimeter-scale next to phosphatic rock. The red grains represent the phosphatized organic material. Photo by Alexandra Guth. It is common to visualize the fossilization process as a single animal dying and then being buried in place. While some animals died directly on the floodplains that used to exist at the site, many of the remains at the West Coast Fossil Park were moved and concentrated by water in this single location over time.

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An offshore sand bar may have kept the remains from being flushed out to sea, and may have also simultaneously acted to trap remains washed in from the ocean. Different animals and plants have varied habitat needs; thus, identifying the remains to establish what community is present provides clues about past ecosystems. While most of the species preserved at the park are extinct themselves, they are closely related to modern species. There is often an additional preservation bias, where small delicate bones are destroyed during transport, while thicker and sturdier bones are more likely to remain intact.

Despite these difficulties, paleontologists are quite successful at classifying and identifying bones to picture the ancient community. The animals found at the West Coast Fossil Park indicate that the area was near the boundary of land and ocean, given that both marine animals e.

The additional presence of frogs at least 8, maybe as many as 12 species are represented in the deposits indicates that there must have been standing fresh water.

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While many frog species exhibit some tolerance to saline water, there are no known amphibians that inhabit purely marine habitats. The jaw bone in the center belonged to a Sivathere, an extinct relative of the modern giraffe. The string marks out a 1-meter grid.


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A more detailed understanding can come from examining the carbon isotopes preserved in bones and teeth. While most people are familiar with the C isotope due to its use in dating recent remains see discussion below , carbon has two isotopes that are more common, and not radioactive.

C is the most common isotope of carbon, with C being a secondary stable isotope. Explore more in this series: Mediterranean-Climate Ecosystems. Related Programs.

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