Museum Blog

Gearing up for Morondava

Posted 6/22/2015 12:06 AM by Ian Miller | Comments

Gearing Up For Morondava 1

Hi Everyone! I’m Ian Miller, curator of paleobotany at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). I’m stateside reading and watching the blog posts from the Madagascar Paleontology Project team, which is now in Berivotra. I’m flying to Tana on June 29th to be part of the second 6-week phase of the 3-month expedition.

Four years ago when Joe Sertich joined the DMNS as the curator of dinosaurs, he invited me to be part of the incredibly successful and ongoing Mahajanga Basin Project (MBP). For the paleontologist in me, this was a dream come true! A quick google search on “Madagascar Dinosaurs” will give you a quick sense of what the MBP has accomplished. Prior to this effort, little was known about the deep fossil history of the island. Over the past 20+ years, more than 70 species of extinct animals from the Late Cretaceous have been unearthed. These include everything from the largest frogs ever discovered (Beelzebufo) to toothed birds with sickle-shaped claws (Rahonavis) to even toothier dinosaurs that seem more at home in a horror movie than they do in the fossil record of Madagascar (Masiakasaurus)!

All these amazing discoveries were made in the northern part of Madagascar in an area called the Mahajanga Basin, hence the Project name. Paleontologists and geologists alike have poured over these rocks finding spectacular fossils and teasing out the details of how they got there. Despite intense work over the last 20 years, virtually no fossil plants have ever been found! Yes, a few stray pieces of fossil wood, and an occasional successful sample of fossil pollen have been collected. However, the real paleobotanical treasure, fossil leaves, which provide all kinds of clues into what the lost Cretaceous world of Madagascar was like, have eluded discovery.

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Three years ago in July of 2012, Joe mounted the first expedition to the remote Cretaceous rocks of southern Madagascar. He was tracking down a possible dinosaur discovery north of the beautiful seaside town of Morondava. With the promise of new rocks, Joe was hopeful that we’d find fossil plants and invertebrates to compliment the amazing fossil record of dinosaurs, birds, amphibians, lizards and mammals already from the island. I came along as a field paleontologist with the hopes of bagging the first fossil leaves from the island of Madagascar.

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One Morondava’s many beautiful beaches.

Our trip was spectacular not only from the perspective of the country-side and people but also from the fossils we found! We traveled north of the town of Belo, and then east out in the grasslands of the northern Morondava Basin. Our work was reworded with all kinds of fossil discoveries including vertebrates, giant ammonites and, to my supreme delight, fossil plants! In fact, the first substantial fossil plants from the island! In truth, the fossil plants left some to be desired when it came to preservation. Importantly, however, it showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Morondava Basin contained Cretaceous fossil plants! Below, I’ve pasted a blog I wrote in 2012 on the heels of the discovery. Now, after three years of waiting, I’ll be headed back in a week to join Joe, Hank, Mike and the rest of the team as we return to the Morondava Basin in search of the lost island ecosystem of Madagascar!

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