Published: August 2, 2018

Fossils in Zambia Are a Window into Extinction

Brandon Peecook, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


We're learning about life before the planet’s biggest mass extinction—and the animals that emerged after, including early mammal and dinosaur relatives.

Looking down on a man holding a pipette and applying a liquid to a fossil dicynodont skull that is still partially buried in the ground.

Brandon Peecook, a researcher at the museum studying fossil vertebrates, is headed out to do fieldwork in Zambia. On a previous trip there, he encountered fossils of a saber-tooth predator and (live) hippos roaming around. Now the team, including curator Ken Angielczyk (seen applying stabilizing glue to a dicynodont skull), is returning to uncover evidence of the biggest-ever mass extinction, and what life looked like at the time. More from Brandon:

A smiling man wearing a hat, sunglass, and a shirt that reads "Evolution happens" holds a chunk of fossilized bone in his hand. Tall, dry grass and a mound of rock and dirt are visible in the background.

Brandon in Zambia, holding a series of fossilized vertebrae from about 250 million years ago. 

Mass extinctions are a part of life on Earth, and our only source of information on how they happen comes from the fossil record. Since we may be in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, understanding these events is critically important. The largest mass extinction in history was the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, which occurred about 252 million years ago. Hopefully, we’ll find beautiful specimens and even new species in Zambia—one of the richest places in the world to find vertebrate fossils from the late Permian.

Three men and an SUV cross a river on a pontoon. The shore and trees are visible in the background, and a hippo's eyes are visible peeking out of the water.

Getting one of the expedition's vehicles across the Luangwa River on a pontoon. (Plus, spot the hippo peeking out of the water!)

In the Luangwa Basin, we hope to confirm our suspicion that several late Permian ecosystems are preserved in this area—to see fossilized snapshots of different groups of plant and animal life. We believe we’ll see evidence of ecosystems that existed in the same place, but one after the other. Previously, we thought all the Permian fossils from this area were around the same age.

Two men wearing hats and sunglasses pose next to a pile of brown rock and partially exposed fossil. Hammers and chisels lay on the ground. Brown grass and forest are visible in the background.

Brandon (left) and Christian Sidor of the University of Washington work to excavate a nearly complete gorgonopsian skeleton, a saber-toothed Permian predator, in North Luangwa National Park. 

If we do find evidence of these successive ecosystems, then this area could give us a window into what life looked like in the process of collapse, when the end-Permian mass extinction began. The chemical signatures and possible causes of this mass extinction are in some ways very similar to what humans are doing to the oceans and atmosphere today, making it scarily relevant.

Our other goal on this trip to Zambia is to explore new areas of Triassic rock, which formed many millions of years after the mass extinction. This rock holds the earliest records of close relatives of dinosaurs, crocodiles, and mammals. It’s exciting because we’ll be able to see how ecosystems recovered from the mass extinction in the same place—and also because we are very likely to find new species. I have my fingers crossed (big time) to find a few good specimens of the earliest true dinosaurs, but we’ll see. No matter what, we’ll find a lot of good stuff there!

Follow #FromTheField on social media for updates from Zambia.