The largest fossil forest in Africa is in Mozambique

Gorongosa, Mozambique — The world 251 million years ago was very different from today. Was it, really? Well, maybe not so much. It was around a quarter of a billion years ago that the largest mass extinction on earth exterminated 95 percent of life on Earth, the Permo-Triassic extinction. The anthropogenic pressures our planet suffers today rival those that happened in the past.

Lush forests full of life dominated the ancient ecosystems in what is today Mozambique, a country on Africa’s southeastern seaboard. Dicynodonts were hunted down by tusked gorgonopsians, much like lions prey on gazelles today. The world was assembled into one gigantic single tectonic plate: Pangea. But this world was soon to change, rapidly and drastically…

It is downstream this river in Mozambique that the largest fossil forest in Africa registers the last glimpses of Earth before the most important mass extinction in the history of life in our planet.

Megatons of greenhouse gases started being released into the atmosphere as a result of intense volcanism. This caused temperatures to rise precipitously, eventually leading to the demise of most groups of animals and plants. No paleontologist would disagree that the Permo-Triassic extinction impacted their favorite groups of interest. It was a major reshuffle of life that determined the course of life in a manner that no other extinction event did. (Read a National Geographic article: The Permian Extinction—When Life Nearly Came to an End)

Dicynodonts were a group of strictly herbivorous animals that ranged from the size of a small rabbit to that of a large pig. They suffered dramatically from the extinction; despite recovering slightly in the Triassic, they eventually died out. Dicynodonts didn’t have to worry about gorgonopsians anymore, because those predators went completely extinct. As for the lush forests, after the Permo-Triassic extinction, going into the Triassic, were no more than dust.

Issaia Macaneta, our skilled driver, sits on a very long fossil log nearly 12m in length. This log measured more than 30m back in the Permian, but only a small chunk is preserved until today.

But some of those large densely-populated forests are preserved to this day. The largest one in Africa is here in Mozambique, in the Tete Province. In a location the size of more than 800 soccer fields, the logs, stumps and branches from that distant past still provide the final glimpses of the world before the greatest mass extinction of all time, preserved forever as fossils.

Prospecting takes our team to very remote places in Mozambique, and small boats are sometimes the only way to cross the rivers.

The past is the key to the present. We have much to learn from the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. Climate change is a direct byproduct of human activity, namely the release of gases from the combustion of fossil fuels. We know what happened 251 million years ago; are we going to allow it to happen today?


Ricardo Araújo has set up the PaleoMoz project in Mozambique to preserve the fossil heritage of the country in close collaboration with Museu Nacional de Geologia de Moçambique. He did his doctoral dissertation on Angolan plesiosaurs, Loch Ness monster lookalikes, and he described a new species of these extinct marine reptiles (Cardiocorax mukulu) at the Southern Methodist University under a Fulbright Scholarship. He has also described and named other plesiosaurs, such as Lusonectes sauvagei and Thaumatodracon weidenrothi. However, his current interests lie in Mozambican fossils. Ricardo Araújo personally found the fossil of Niassodon mfumukasi, which turned out to be the first fossil vertebrate species from Mozambique. Under the PaleoMoz Project, the first generation of Mozambican paleontologists is being trained and the first fossil preparation laboratory was recently set up in Maputo.

Ricardo received a National Geographic research grant to study mammal ancestors from an unexplored basin from the end-Permian Mass Extinction event in Mozambique. He participated in the recent National Geographic Sciencetelling Bootcamp on Gorongosa National Park.

Ricardo participated in the National Geographic Society Sciencetelling Bootcamp in Gorongosa National Park, September 2017. More than a dozen researchers and conservationists associated with Mozambique’s iconic park partnered with a team of National Geographic storytellers to develop personal and professional storytelling skills through public speaking, videography, photography, social media and blogging. The multi-day Sciencetelling course was created especially for scientists and conservationists to effectively communicate their work to audiences beyond peer-reviewed journals. A selection of their blog posts, photographs and videos will be published on the Sciencetelling Stories blog. Learn more about National Geographic’s Sciencetelling Bootcamp program.

Find out how to apply for a National Geographic grant.

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