Zambia paleo dig yields new insights on Permian-Triassic environments

Mark Alvey

Please note: this news story, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 27-August-2014.

Ken Angielczyk in the Luangwa Basin of Zambia holding two specimens of the dicynodont Diictodon. Photo by Roger Smith.

Associate Curator Ken Angielczyk of The Field Museum was part of an international team of collaborators that conducted paleontological fieldwork in Zambia between June 22 and July 31. Ken and his collaborators focused on Middle Permian (~265 Mya) to Middle Triassic (~240 Mya) rocks in two areas of the country, the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia and the Luangwa Basin in northeastern Zambia. The team had done preliminary work in the Zambezi Basin in 2011 and 2012, but only spent a total of about 5 days working there. This time, they spent about two weeks there and their discoveries include multiple species of archaic amphibians and dinocephalians and dicynodonts (both ancient mammal relatives) from the Middle Permian, extremely well preserved fossil wood, and evidence that two temporally-distinct faunas are preserved in the Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin. They also collected a large amount of geological data that will help complete the picture of the environments in which the plants and animals were living.

Ken’s colleagues Sebastien Steyer and Charles Beightol excavate a dinocephalian skeleton preserved in Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin of Zambia. Photo: Cristian Sidor.

The team had conducted more extensive fieldwork in the Luangwa Basin in 2009 and 2011, and this year their work focused on rounding out their previous collections and collecting more geological data to understand  paleoenvironments. Among their discoveries is evidence of strong associations of particular dicynodonts with specific environments in the Late Permian rocks of the Luangwa Basin, and strong evidence of increased aridity and changes in the nature of river systems in the area moving from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic. Ken and his collaborators will use these data to investigate the role environmental changes played in shaping the end-Permian mass extinction (the largest extinction in Earth history) and the recovery following the event.

Ulemosaurus svijagensis – primitive tapinocephalian from Middle Permian of Tatarstan. Illustration by Dmitry Bogdanov. Source:

And one important result of fieldwork like that: scientific publications.  Ken and colleagues have a paper in the July issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology describing fossils of tapinocephalids from Southern Zambia.  Tapinocephalids are hippo-sized, herbivorous mammal relatives that lived about 265 million years ago; the fossils were discovered by Ken and his collaborators during short exploratory trips to the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia in 2011 and 2012. They are the oldest known tetrapod remains from Zambia, and demonstrated the potential of the area for further paleontological exploration (as in previous item). This is also the second time that Ken and his teammates have discovered tapinocephalids in an area from which they were previously unknown (the first time was in 2008 in Tanzania).

© 2014 Mark Alvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES