Good to note the value of museums

The article below was published in the Daily Dispatch on Tuesday 2 October 2018.

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Coelacanth sparked student’s quest

Discovery of fossils in Sterkspruit a dream come true for EC researcher

It never dawned on 24- year-old Wits masters’ student in palaeontology, Cebisa Mdekazi, centre, that the huge find of dinosaurs fossils in Sterkspruit , perhaps the world 's biggest, would be found right next to her town of Whittlesea.

It never dawned on 24- year-old Wits masters’ student in palaeontology, Cebisa Mdekazi, centre, that the huge find of dinosaurs fossils in Sterkspruit , perhaps the world ‘s biggest, would be found right next to her town of Whittlesea.  Image: Lulamile Feni
A young woman scientist painstakingly chipping away in a massive dinosaur graveyard in Sterkspruit is an Eastern Cape woman to the core.

Twenty-four-year old Cebisa Mdekazi is one of the 11-strong team of students and researchers from around the world who are working on what is believed to be one of the largest fossil collections on earth.

Mdekazi grew up in Alice and Whittlesea and went to Adelaide Primary and Clarendon High in East London.

Her passion for paleontology was ignited during a high school outing when her Grade 9 class found out about the coelacanth at the East London Museum.

The ancient fish was discovered off the East London coast in 1938 and identified by the late East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, and named in 1939.

“I learnt about the coelacanth, a fish that was thought to have gone extinct about 65 million years ago until its discovery off the East London coast,” said Mdekazi.

The Wits University master’s student in paleontology never thought such a huge discovery of fossils would be found in her home region and that she would be one of those involved in researching the site.

Qhemegha village in Sterkspruit is less than 250km from her village of Lower Didimana Village in Whittlesea town.

“It’s so exciting that the massive dinosaur fossils were found not that far from my home and that I became involved in the research on the site,” Mdekazi said.

She went to Adelaide Primary School in Adelaide then moved to Clarendon Girls’ High in East London on a scholarship.

“I have always enjoyed the natural sciences, drawing inspiration from my mother, who is a retired primary school natural sciences teacher, as well as my life science teachers throughout my primary and high school years.

“ It came as no surprise when I pursued earth sciences at university.”

Her undergraduate studies were completed at Wits, majoring in geology and biology. She received an honours degree in paleontology from the same university.

She is currently working on understanding the evolution of locomotion (movement) in crocodiles and their ancestors.

She wants to complete her PhD degree before she reaches 30.

Mdekazi is working on the site with professors from five top universities – Oxford, Birmingham, Zurich, Wits and Johannesburg.

“It has been such an incredible experience digging fossils on sites in my home province and working with my people,” said the excited Mdekazi.

“We’ve been working in Qhemegha for just under two weeks and it has been an extremely successful trip in that we found plentiful fossils.

“We are hopeful that there is still much more to be discovered here,” said Mdekazi.

Although this is the fourth site she has worked on, this one is special.

“The three previous trips do not compare to what we found in Qhemegha.

“The whole Senqu Municipality is the most fossil-rich area I have ever come across.

“Usually one finds part of the skeleton or finds fossils that have fallen out of the rock and are no longer in a good situation.

“Some of the specimens that we found in Qhemegha are still within the rock which is the most ideal state because scientists are then able to estimate the age of that fossil quite accurately because the rocks help us understand the type of environment that the animal lived in.”

Mdekazi was humbled that the first person to find the fossilised bones was herdsman Dumangwe Tyhobela.

He only has a Grade 5 education, but his curiosity and grit was immense.

“Mr Tyhobela’s determination is such an inspiration because it shows that anyone with an interest in paleontology, irrespective of their level of education, can help contribute to a major discovery such this one,” she said.

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World Rhino Day 22 September 2018

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White or Square-lipped rhinoceros

Museum scientist Kevin Cole has just returned from a trip to the Kruger National Park. A number of magnificent rhino sightings highlighted the need for humankind (as custodians of the natural world) to respect and fight for the survival of rhino species worldwide.

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Homo sapiens are the only species that have the key to conserving the 50 million year evolutionary expression that are rhinos seen in the wild today. Both the white and black rhinoceros in southern Africa descended from the same species, the extinct Ceratotherium praecox which lived some 7 million years ago.

These creatures bring on a sense of awe to any visitor seeing them for the first time and play an ecological role in natural ecosystems that compliments other grazers and browsers living in protected areas.

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The white rhinoceros pictured above is the second largest African land mammal and can weigh up to 2.3 tons. They consume a large amount of grass each day (estimates are as much as 5% of body mass). From about 12 years of age the males will hold territories.

The black rhino pictured below can weigh up to 1.2 tons and is a browser. They are solitary and territorial and can live up to 45 years. The calf of the black rhino runs behind the mother when they flee unlike the white rhino where the calf runs in front of the mother.

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Note the hooked-lip on the black rhino as compared to the square lip on the white rhino

Spare a thought this Saturday (22 September) for rhino conservation and the rangers that protect these animals from poachers.

World Rhino Day is 22 September: 5 Rhino Species Forever

What is World Rhino Day?

World Rhino Day celebrates all five species of rhino: Black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos.

World Rhino Day is 22 September: 5 Rhino Species Forever!

When is World Rhino Day?

World Rhino Day is on September 22nd.

How did World Rhino Day get its start?

World Rhino Day was first announced by WWF-South Africa in 2010. The following year, World Rhino Day grew into an international success, encompassing both African and Asian rhino species, thanks to the efforts of two determined women …

What happened in 2011?

It all started with an email: In mid-2011, Lisa Jane of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was planning ahead for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found Rhishja’s blog. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of making World Rhino Day a day of celebration for all five rhino species. Meanwhile, the team at Rhino Africa prepared for their second World Rhino Day event in Cape Town, building on the success of South Africa’s popular 2010 campaign.

In the months that followed, the teams worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international success, both online and offline. World Rhino Day has since grown into a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, zoos, cause-related organizations, businesses, and concerned individuals from nearly every corner of the world!

Is there a theme for World Rhino Day?

Yes! “Five Rhino Species Forever” celebrates both the African and Asian rhino species. In addition, World Rhino Day is an opportunity to highlight efforts to debunk the myths and diminish the demand for rhino horn.

Is there more than one event on World Rhino Day?

Yes! It is believed that World Rhino Day is a success because it provides the opportunity for cause-related organizations, NGOs, zoos, and members of the public to celebrate World Rhino Day in their own unique ways. These activities varied from one participant to the next. Donors and partners are able to contribute to the organizations and initiatives of their choosing. Peaceful demonstrations, classroom projects, fundraising dinners, auctions and poster displays are just a few examples.

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Female humpback whale stranding at Cape Morgan

A 13 m female humpback whale was reported stranded yesterday at Cape Morgan (see attached map below).

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An investigation by museum scientist, Kevin Cole revealed that the animal had died out at sea before being lodged on the rocks below and slightly to the west of the Cape Morgan lighthouse. The skull, mandible and upper jaw had been dislodged from the main body (probably on impact with the rocks). There was no other visible trauma to the body except for some small shark bite marks to the upper jaw (it is assumed that there was some predation on the floating carcass).

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Skin and blubber samples were taken and will be sent to Bayworld in Port Elizabeth for analysis.

This is the second female humpback whale stranding along this coast in six weeks. The first was investigated at Cape Henderson on the 22 June 2018 (illustrated below).

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Kevin Cole investigates the Cape Henderson humpback whale stranding

Mr Bryan Church (Strandloper Tail manager) reported earlier today that a local Kei Mouth resident Mr Rob Nel had spotted the whale floating in the area last Thursday (2 August 2018). The advanced state of decomposition attests to this. Mr Church and Mr Richard Warren-Smith (Morgan Bay Hotel) are thanked for reporting the whale to the museum.

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Notes for the upcoming lunar eclipse in East London (27 July 2018)

If we have clear skies on Friday 27 July 2018 then we may be able to witness one of the longest lunar eclipse events for a while. A full moon is required for a lunar eclipse. The earth will begin to cast a shadow on the moon at approximately 19h14 (a penumbral eclipse will begin) and at 20h24 a partial eclipse will begin (the moon will start to get red). Light is filtered by the Earth’s gaseous atmosphere – the green to violet range of colours gets filtered out more than the red and folk on Earth will see the Moon presenting as a rusty,  red or dark grey (see the photographs below).

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These photos were taken in 2011 at Chintsa East. Photo: Kevin Cole

At 21h30 a total eclipse of the moon will begin and an almost completely red moon should be visible. The maximum eclipse (when the moon is closest to the center of the Earth’s shadow) will occur at 22h21.

The total eclipse will end at 23h13 and the partial eclispse will end at 00h19.

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Images captured in Beacon Bay September 2015: Photo Kevin Cole

This will be one of the longest total lunar eclipse events to be viewed from South Africa in a century. In billions of years from now lunar eclipses will not occur as the moon moves away from the Earth at approximately 4 cm a year.

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Unusual record of skipjack tuna

A local fisherman alerted the museum this week (10 July 2018) of some wild fish activity off the reef at the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve. Large bait balls of sardines were being pursued by hundreds of skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). Retired museum colleague, Greg Brett, confirmed the identity of the species and commented that it was a good record for the region.

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East London Museum display of the skipjack tuna. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

Documenting the event it was noted that the ‘boiling’ water off the reef had large fish surfacing as they preyed upon the smaller sardines.

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Skipjack tuna working a sardine bait ball off the Nahoon Reef. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

The skipjack tuna are spindle-shaped with a silver belly and 4-6 horizontal stripes. They can grow to 1 m and weigh up to 35 kg. They mostly occur off the east coast in summer, so this record for the winter months (so close inshore) is rare. They feed on pelagic fish and squid (and occasionally juvenile skipjack).

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A skipjack tuna breaking the surface of the bait ball. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

They generally occur in large schools near the surface in offshore waters and can be associated with sharks, whales and other tuna species. There was a lot of whale activity in the area on the day they were documented at Nahoon. The genus of the scientific name Katsuwonus is derived from Katsuwo, the Japanese name for the fish and pelamis (white wax). A silvery wax-like pigment can be scraped from the chest region and is used in high quality paints by taxidermists.  The common name is in reference to its habit of ‘skipping’ along the surface (as illustrated below).

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The ‘skipping’ action of Katsuwonus pelamis. Photo: Kevin Cole ELM

This fish is able to maintain swimming speeds of about 40 km/h due to a specialized ‘warm-blooded’ vascular system which keeps the muscles well supplied with oxygen. They occur in water temperatures ranging from 19-30 degrees Celsius.

References:

A guide to the common sea fishes of southern Africa by Rudy van der Elst

Coastal fishes of southern Africa by Phil and Elaine Heemstra

Two oceans – a guide to the marine life of southern Africa by G Branch, C Griffiths, M Branch and L Beckley

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Museum scientist receives a Vocational Service Award from the Rotary Club of East London

The Rotary Club of East London is the oldest in the city and was founded in 1926 (Charter No. 2317 2-4-1926). It is 7th oldest on the African continent. One of the club members, Rotarian Luke Baisley, assisted the museum with the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve project by facilitating funding through the Small Projects Foundation to have the first wooden boardwalk constructed.  The East London Museum has had a long standing relationship with Rotary over the past 2 decades and in particular with Rotary Club of East London member Mr Graham Keppie.

Last night museum scientist Kevin Cole was very happily surprised and humbled to receive a Vocational Service Award from the club in ‘recognition of his personal qualities and his superlative contribution to the Eastern Cape as Principal Scientist at the East London Museum‘.

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President Pam Way of the Rotary Club of East London with Kevin Cole

Rotary International and the service clubs in East London have been very supportive of the museum projects directed by the natural history department. Gately Rotary Club has previously supplied funds for the Earth Stewardship program facilitated in previous years at the institution.

A turning point in Kevin’s career was the opportunity afforded by Rotary International and the sponsor club Beacon Bay Rotary to be part of a Group Study Exchange programme to Scotland in 1997. He was inspired by the vocational undertakings and was greatly enthused to contribute to his community on arriving back in East London.

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Thank you Marion Meyer for your kind comment  –

‘A very well deserved award. Congratulation to Kevin and thank you to Rotary for both of your dedications to the the environment’.

Marion

 

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Humpback whale stranding at Cape Henderson

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