Africa fossils fuel extinction survival theory

2nd May 2013

Africa has unearthed fossils giving new insights into life on Earth 250 million years ago.

The treasure trove of information on expeditions to Tanzania and Zambia shines a light on how the predecessors of dinosaurs developed 10 million years after the planet's largest extinction.

It is little wonder the scientists chose southern Africa.

Traces of how it was once the cradle for the birthplace of many of the world's species can still be seen today in wildlife-rich environments so loved by nature-loving holidaymakers on specialist tours.

Tanzania boasts Ruaha National Park, with its lions, leopards, cheetah and giraffes; Selous Game Reserve, renowned for zebras and elephants; and Serengeti National Park, with its roaming wildebeest and zebras.

Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, supporting several crocodiles and hippos, remains a great favourite of group tours.

Seven expeditions to these two countries and Antarctica uncovered some of the earliest fossils of pre-dinosaur creatures ever found.

Researchers suggest how herbivore species - dinosaurs' ancestors - were able to compete after ancient species were decimated in the mass extinction 252 million years ago.

Up to 96% of all marine life and 70% of land animals perished in this extinction, known as The Great Dying.

Snapshots taken of life before and afterwards, however, show how the dispersal and destruction of so many species allowed other previously "ecologically marginalised" species - including the ancestors of the first dinosaurs - to thrive.

Richard Lane, programme director in NSF's Division of Earth Sciences, said: "These scientists have identified an outcome of mass extinctions - that species ecologically marginalised before the extinction may be "freed up" to experience evolutionary bursts then dominate after the extinction."

The study will be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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