Closing up shop

Before leaving Angola, we needed to arrive one day early in Luanda to take care of travel documentation and other tasks at Agostinho Neto University, before we (and the fossils) all go our separate ways. Louis and Octávio also met with government officials, in particular the Minister of Education Ms. Candida Teixeira and others, to discuss Sea Monsters outreach in Angolan schools.

Octávio enjoying Sea Monsters Unearthed power point presentation with Minister of Education Ms. Candida Teixeira and Director Pedro Camilo da Costa during discussions of Projecto PaleoAngola educational outreach, a good example of science for development.
Louis and Octávio with Manuel Afonso, Director General of the Angolan National Institute for Research and Development of Education, with whom Projecto PaleoAngola is working to bring Sea Monsters to schools.

This last day in and around Luanda also provided an opportunity for Alex, Miguel, and Mike to take a day trip to Iembe a spectacular locality, with outcrops perched high on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with bones dotting the tops of each ridge. We even managed to do some collecting of shark and mosasaur material. It was a wonderful way to spend the last day in Angola, before reuniting with the others in Luanda for dinner and motivated discussions about the scope for future expeditions. What a wonderful end to a fantastic adventure!

Mike and Alex atop the cliffs at Iembe, overlooking the sea. This is the type locality for the dinosaur Angolatitan, the mosasaur Angolasurus, and the turtle Angolachelys.
Last night in Luanda for Projecto PaleoAngola’s American and Portuguese contingent, at the Hotel Tivoli.

Closing the Globidens dig

The last day of the dig finally arrived, and it became evident that the weeks of hard work had really paid off, since we were right on schedule, with ample time to wrap everything up and remove the jackets from the quarry at a smooth pace. One side of each of the bone jackets was already wrapped in burlap and plaster and had dried overnight, so in the morning they were all undercut at their bases, and successfully flipped over. Once flipped, excess rock was removed to make the jackets smaller and easier to handle. We then jacketed the other side of the blocks, completing the safe shell-like structure that will protect the bones inside during transport and storage.

Top panel- Nemo, cutting down the skull block. Middle panel- Louis, Alex, and Isabella cutting down some of the smaller blocks. Bottom panel – Large blocks ready to travel..

If a jacket is built successfully, it will cushion its contents throughout all of the vibrations of traveling on rough roads, as well as any impacts that it might endure during lifting and setting down. And our jackets are looking very much up to that task! The jackets were loaded onto a truck and transported to Alvarito’s in Moçâmedes for safekeeping until they can be shipped to prep labs in the US and Portugal.

The bounty of this field season. The Globidens skeleton and other fossils we collected this season will be shipped to the labs for preparation and study.

The final push

The penultimate day of the excavations finally arrived, and it was a race to the finish. We started the day shortly after dawn, in order to maximize the daylight (it’s winter right now in Angola, so the sun sets around 6pm). Luckily, Carla, the wonderful helper who makes our meals, sent us off with a thermos full of hot Angolan coffee. After a quick cup on site to kick-start our work, the day continued to fly by in a flurry of stone-carving to further isolate the blocks full of mosasaur bones, followed by round after round of wrapping the blocks in protective paper and plaster jackets for transport.

Isabel and Alex using plaster bandages to jacket fossils in the Globidens Quarry.

Finding the raw materials that are needed for these kinds of tasks, when in remote places in foreign countries, is sometimes quite difficult, and you never quite know if the quality of what you have purchased is actually up to the task at hand. It turned out that the plaster we had purchased cured slowly and was not very strong. So today started out with a bit of experimentation, mixing the plaster with Portland cement to find the ideal consistency and hardness needed to keep the bone blocks intact. Eventually we arrived at a suitable recipe, and the fossils were all safely enveloped on one side, with burlap strips dipped into the mix and wrapped around the exterior of each block. The larger blocks also had lumber incorporated in the jackets for additional strength. Once the plaster mix has dried overnight, we will flip the blocks and wrap the other sides tomorrow morning.

Jackets ready for flipping at Globidens Quarry. Gray color is due to Portland Cement mixed with plaster to provide strength.

We also had quite an amazing surprise toward the end of the day, when a seemingly-small and inconspicuous bone remnant, partially dug out of an outcrop yesterday, turned out to be an absolutely enormous pterosaur wing element! It just goes to show how absolutely amazing this locality is, and also the importance of never underestimating the hint of a fossil weathering out at Bentiaba!!

Partial wing of a huge pterosaur. Copyright Projecto PaleoAngola.

Trenching the mosasaur (Post for July 10&11)

We have been working in the mosasaur quarry to expose bone and see how they can be separated into manageable sized jackets for removal. Once that was done we began cutting  trenches between the blocks encasing the bones. We also needed to dig pretty deep in front of and around the blocks to allow undercutting, and also removed rock from the hillside to create more space for the excavators. The skull block is quite large and the amount of bone it contains is promising, but we will need to wait until it is prepared in the labs before we know with certainty how much of it is preserved.   

Above, Riquenga using small rotohammer; below, Alex and Miguel working in the Globidens quarry. Copyright Projecto PaleoAngola.

The remainder of the group, prospected and also measured the rock section to place specimens in the stratigraphic column.  After coming back to camp in the evening, the team discussed objectives for the last few days working in Bentiaba. Only three more days are left for fieldwork. The time here has passed quickly!

And the dig goes on (Post for July 9th)

The mosasaur site has continued to yield many new bones. The most exciting parts to be revealed so far include a well-preserved articulated left mandible, missing the posterior part due to erosion. You will notice the teeth in the image below are not in place but have fallen out of their sockets. That is because Globidens phosphaticus, unlike other mosasaurs, never cement their teeth to the dentary, but instead maintain flexible periodontal ligaments through life, as we reported in our 2010 paper on this taxon (Polcyn et al., 2010).

Left mandible of Globidens phosphaticus. Copyright Projecto PaleoAngola.

A beautiful series of vertebrae, that in life would have been right in front of the fluke and downturned part of the tail, lie articulated in life-position, and was very exciting to uncover. Many other tail vertebrae can be seen disarticulated. We still have a large section of bone bed to uncover, so hoping for more great discoveries to come.

Above, Nemo using large rotohammer; below, tail vertebrae of Globidens phosphaticus. Copyright Projecto PaleoAngola.

Octávio and Louis paid a courtesy call on the local government administrators in Bentiaba and showed them the Sea Monsters power point. At every presentation, the urgency of protecting the fossil sites is emphasized.

Spellbound local administrators at Bentiaba leaning about Sea Monsters Unearthed and Projecto PaleoAngola.

Then they met up with our group of four students from the Universidade de Agostinho Neto in Luanda that have joined us for the remainder of the expedition. The students were given a quick tour of the geology in and around Bentiaba and were briefed on the objectives for this year’s field season. The second team also worked on measuring the stratigraphy and collected sediment samples.

The first stop was to see a plant: Welwitschia mirabilis, the iconic and defining plant of the Namibe Desert in Angola and Namibia. It grows nowhere else today, but fossil leaves have been found in the Early Cretaceous of Brazil from a time when Africa and South America were still connected and the South Atlantic Ocean had not formed.

Octávio showing geology students from Agostino Neto University Welwitshia mirabilis. Left to right: Isabel dos Santos (hidden by Octávio), Euridice Pacheco, Celso Riquenga, and Simã (Nimo) Ními. Welwitchia has only two broad straplike leaves that fray along the ground. The leaves of this specimen, like other Welwitschia plants in its neighborhood, are nibbled back nearly to the stem. This locality is about 20 kilometers north of Bentiaba, near Fael’s camp. So far as we are aware, this is the northernmost limit of Welwitschia in the world.
A geology lesson along the cliffs at Bentiaba.
The crew at the Globidens Quarry. From left to right: Octávio, Mike, Louis, Riquenga, Isabel, Alex, Miguel, Euridice, and Nemo.

After cleaning up the quarry and arriving back to camp, the team gave a presentation to our camp hosts and fellow researchers and students, covering the work Projecto PaleoAngola has done over the years, culminating with the Smithsonian exhibit. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and afterward, one of our hosts gratefully exclaimed that finally being able to understand the ancient history of this place was like “a light” being turned on for her. We couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding end to a hard workday.

Rapt attention during the Sea Monsters power point presentation in the dining hut of Fael’s camp, where we stay in the field. Our dome tents can be seen in the distance through the screening.

Polcyn, M.J., Jacobs, L.L., Schulp, A.S. and Mateus, O., 2010. The North African mosasaur Globidens phosphaticus from the Maastrichtian of Angola. Historical Biology22(1-3), pp.175-185.

More Globidens excavation and the K-Pg boundary (Post for July 7th & 8th)

On Sunday and Monday, the team was divided into two groups: one excavating the mosasaur quarry, and a second prospecting Paleogene outcrops near a potential K-Pg boundary. The team at the mosasaur site worked on removing rock above the bone layer. Careful exposure of bone is needed in order to know where blocks can be separated and removed from the bone layer. Small blocks are preferred, as these are lighter, but in some areas the bones are dense, and will require large jackets. The skull section is one of those areas that will require a larger block!
Continued work on the dig revealed the right lower jaw and a possible maxilla that includes those mushroom-shaped teeth that are diagnostic of Globidens. Our goal in the days ahead is to locate all the bones in the quarry, make sure everything is mapped, then begin to isolate and remove blocks of bone and rock in plaster and burlap jackets.

At the Globidens Quarry overlooking the sea.

The K-Pg site continues to become more promising, as a dense layer of squid-like animals called nautiloids was discovered above the upper-most layer of the Cretaceous represented at Bentiaba. These cephalopods may be a taxon represented only in the age after the end of the Mesozoic. In addition to the nautiloids, some vertebrate remains were also discovered, another very exciting development. Continued work at both the K-Pg site and the mosasaur site will add significantly to the amazing geology and paleontological heritage of Angola!

Geoveth excavating a Paleogene bone high in the cliff face.

Breaking out the power tools ( Post for July 6th).

The morning was cool and refreshing as our team, now six in total, sat for breakfast and reviewed the day’s objectives. We decided we would focus efforts on excavating the Globidens fossil.

We headed to the site prepared to move a lot of rock. We would use power tools to remove a wall of rock behind the mosasaur blocks to make room to work, and also to remove more rock overlying the bones. Most of the time, preparing fossils for study is a meticulous process and sediments are removed from bones in the lab with small, specialized hand tools such as airscribes (miniature pneumatic hammers) or dental tools. But the field is a different story! Since our objective is to safely remove fossils on a short timeline, we sometimes rely on electric powered jackhammers to remove a large volume of the overlying rocks, and today was just that day. Everyone took a turn with the rotary hammer bringing down higher ledges of rock in order to work at the layer that contained the mosasaur bones. Once we got close to the bones, we switched to hammers and chisels and other hand tools to approach bones more cautiously. And so, the site starts to reveal its secrets, bone by bone. As we worked to isolate bones that we were already aware of, new bones started to be exposed. One great discovery was a series of vertebrae from the end of the tail on one side of the accumulation, and vertebrae from the base of the tail on the other side. There’s still a lot of rock to remove, so we’re hoping the middle part of the tail is represented as well!!!

Miguel removing overburden with the rotohammer

Of course, you need to stretch your legs periodically, so members would occasionally take short prospecting walks, locating more mosasaur, plesiosaur, and turtle fossils. Besides, the richly fossiliferous Cretaceous beds, there are also younger sediments, possibly Pleistocene in age. Those are the rocks that one of our team found mammal teeth and bones and fragments of ostrich shells. A great find indeed!!!

Mike at the Globidens Quarry.

Of course, you need to stretch your legs periodically, so members would occasionally take short prospecting walks, locating more mosasaur, plesiosaur, and turtle fossils. Besides, the richly fossiliferous Cretaceous beds, there are also younger sediments, possibly Pleistocene in age. Those are the rocks that one of our team found mammal teeth and bones and fragments of ostrich shells. A great find indeed!!!

Our visitors: Pedro Vaz Pinto with snake stick in center, his son Afonso is to the left of Alex, holding a File Snake, Spanish herpetologist and photographer Javier Lobon Rovira is between Alex and Pedro, Geoveth is in the red hat, Louis and Mike are the bookends.
Alex, Afonso, Geoveth, and Mike in the Globidens Quarry.

In the afternoon, we had a visit from Pedro Vaz Pinto, a very well-respected biologist and conservationist in Angola, probably best known for his efforts to save the endangered Giant Sable Antelope, the national symbol of Angola.  He was conducting a biodiversity survey with his son, Afonso, and Javier Lobon Rovira, a Spanish herpetologist and natural history photographer.  Some of his photos are shown below.

Alex, Geoveth, Afonso, Mike, Pedro, and Louis at the Globidens Quarry.
A colorful skink on pink granite.
A Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis)
A File Snake (Limaformosa sp.), characterized by rough and well-spaced scales, strongly triangular body, and lavender skin.
And just to show another snake, this one photographed by one of our group, is the beautiful Angolan Coral Snake (aka Cowles’ Shield Cobra, Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi).

Tomorrow, we will continue work on the Globidens dig and of course, prospecting Bentiaba for more amazing finds.

Opening the quarry!!

Opening a fossil quarry is always an exciting moment, but especially today, because an important specimen that was partially excavated in 2017 is going to finally be collected this season! The mosasaur from this quarry, identified as the species Globidens phosphatius, was a large marine lizard that preyed on massive bivalves, with large shell-crushing teeth shaped like mushrooms. This find represents the most complete and well preserved skeleton of this rare species ever discovered. The team ran out of time to complete the excavation in 2017, so the specimen was capped with plaster jackets, and buried to camouflage it’s location.
After breakfast (with more delicious Angolan coffee), two of our team members, Alexandra and Miguel, were dropped-off at the mosasaur site to begin removing the overburden from the blocks containing the bones. The other team members were meeting the governor in Namibe. We had relocated the exact position of the fossil the day before with gps and photographs, so the work was started with shoveling and brushing away the sediment overlying the mosasaur blocks. Although this kind of work may seem tedious, it is actually exciting, since bones can be exposed at any moment. Working diligently, the blocks containing the mosasaur bones were slowly uncovered, along with isolated plesiosaur and mosasaur teeth! When digging in Bentiaba, there is always more to find…!!!

Opening the Globidens quarry. Miguel and Alex uncovering the jackets buried in 2017 (top and middle). Bottom – Alex showing off one of the plesiosaur teeth found during excavation.

In addition to previously uncovered bones, new mosasaur bones were discovered alongside the plastered blocks. The sediment surrounding them was chipped away revealing they were limb elements. In the late afternoon, the rest of the team returned to Bentiaba and arrived at the site with another new team member, Geoveth! He grew up in Angola and studied geologic engineering at the Universidad de Moa in the Republic of Cuba. Just a few minutes walking around and showing him the bones and teeth spilling out of the rock outcrops was all that was needed for him to appreciate the amazing richness of Bentiaba. 
Coming back into camp, after a day’s work was welcomed by warm showers, and for dinner: roasted gazelle! Tomorrow we start by removing overburden and expanding the quarry into the hillside.

Finally on the outcrops!

Today was a great day.  A good nights sleep, good Angolan coffee at breakfast, getting our supplies organized, and then off to the outcrops of Bentiaba.  We have two new crew members with us this year.  They are grad students at the New University of Lisbon, working on plesiosaur and pterosaur material collected at Bentiaba.  To orient them, we started the day with an overview of the geological section and visiting all the major localities in the area.  The famous Bench 19 locality, with its incredible fossil wealth, represents only about 240 thousand years, set in the Lower Maastrichtian, or about 72 million years ago.  However,  the Mesozoic section in this area ranges from about 130 million years ago to about 66 million years ago, and preserves the remarkable record of the separation of Africa and South America and the early opening of the South Atlantic, so there was a lot of ground to cover.  

Lower Cretaceous sediments north of Bentiaba.

At one of the stops, our plesiosaur worker, Miguel Marx found a mosasaur skull, weathering out in the Upper Campanian part of the section, between Bench 2&3, in our published stratigraphic scheme (Strganac et al., 2014).  This is one of the oldest mosasaurs from this area and the first with skull material preserved. Vertebrates are generally more rare in this part of the section, so this is truly a significant find.  Miguel and fellow grad student Alexandra Fernandes, determined its stratigraphic position and did some preliminary triage of the specimen, which will be excavated at a later date. We ended the day with a visit to the Bench 19 locality, relocating the Globidens phosphaticus skeleton we found in 2017.  We will start the excavation of that specimen tomorrow morning.

Grad students Miguel Marx and Alexandra Fernandes triage a mosasaur skull, low in the section at Bentiaba.

Strganac, C., Salminen, J., Jacobs, L.L., Polcyn, M.J., Ferguson, K.M., Mateus, O., Schulp, A.S., Morais, M.L., da Silva Tavares, T. and Gonçalves, A.O., 2014. Carbon isotope stratigraphy, magnetostratigraphy, and 40Ar/39Ar age of the Cretaceous South Atlantic coast, Namibe Basin, Angola. Journal of African Earth Sciences99, pp.452-462.location

The road to Bentiaba.

How can we possibly describe the whirlwind that is the Lubango shopping experience? While transiting from store to store, you are constantly treated to the vibrancy of Lubango. From the vivid colors of the people’s clothing, to the Portuguese being shouted across busy streets, to the chaotic flow of the traffic.

  The shopping process itself is not straightforward, although the friendly locals are always willing to lend a hand or give a useful tip.  We were pleasantly surprised to find plaster and ethanol available from certain hardware stores, but then went on quite a wild goose chase for acetone (a key ingredient for our field consolidant mixture).  After scouring various suppliers and running down many leads with no luck, we eventually emerged victorious from…a beauty supply store!!  We may have decimated their inventory, but we emerged with many tiny bottles of nail polish remover.  With everything packed in  the Land Cruiser, and after a quick stop to pick up sandwiches, we set off for Bentiaba.

Serra da Leba- image from

Our journey to Bentiaba was initiated with a spectacular drive from Lubango to the edge of the plateau, before dropping into a meandering series of hairpin turns descending from the plateau, Serra da Leba. What a spectacular vista.  After the initial decent, Baobab trees could be seen clustered together, some still bearing fruit, reminding us “we are definitely in Africa”.  Continuing down, you are driving through a surreal landscape of beautiful eroded granite giving way to the gently rolling coastal desert.
At the end of our previous field season, we had left much of our field gear with Alvarito Baptista in the coastal town of Moçâmedes which was our next stop, late in the afternoon. Alvarito and his father are both excellent naturalists. Not long ago Alvarito photographed a leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) on a beach in southern Angolan. Leopard seals are Antarctic animals with very few records in southern Africa. No records of their occurrence in Angola are recorded in the literature, including the recent compendium, Biodiversity of Angola. Thus, Alvarito may have recorded its first occurrence in Angola and its northernmost occurrence in Africa.

A leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) photographed by Alvarito Baptista on a beach in southern Angolan.

A quick inventory of the supplies  verified we had everything we needed for the field.  So after loading the car, we set off for our final stop of the day;  our base camp at Bentiaba.  When we arrived, late in the evening, dinner was ready and the tents were set!  All thanks to one of our long-time outfitters that has supported our stays at Bentiaba since 2006.  A delicious meal of bitoque (Portuguese-style steak with egg) rejuvenated our energy after a long day.  Tomorrow, the field!  Tomorrow…the fossils!