The article below was published in the Daily Dispatch on Tuesday 2 October 2018.
Coelacanth sparked student’s quest
Discovery of fossils in Sterkspruit a dream come true for EC researcher
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.