SMU-led Africa expedition scores intriguing mammal fossil


Tuesday, August 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By Alexandra Witze / The Dallas Morning News

A Dallas-led team of scientists has stumbled upon a winged monster in deepest Africa.
The discovery of a fossilized bat, no bigger than a mouse, could have big implications for a continent where ancient mammal finds are rare.

Charles Msuya, of New York University, unearthed the 46 million-year-old fossil last week near Mahenge, Tanzania. It is one of the earliest complete bats known, almost undoubtedly a new species, and the only mammal from this time period known in all Africa, scientists said.

Mr. Msuya is part of an expedition, led by paleobotanist Bonnie Jacobs of Southern Methodist University, to uncover the region's climatic past. The team announced the discovery last week on its World Wide Web site (www.smu.edu/~esp/tanzania.html).

Scientists won't know the fossil's true importance until they can clean and carefully study it.

Still, "you can't find out anything unless you have the data to test ideas," said Louis Jacobs, a paleontologist at SMU and Bonnie Jacobs' husband. "Finding fine fossils like this will help test the hypotheses about how bats and African animals evolved."

Animal finds are a bonus for the paleobotany expedition. Bonnie Jacobs has been looking for fossil plants, which can tell her about rainfall, temperature and other climate factors in the region 46 million years ago. That information, in turn, could help researchers improve the computer models they use to estimate climate change.

So far, the team has collected about 300 specimens – mostly plants, but also fish, frogs, and possibly even a bird claw, Louis Jacobs said. Finding the bat fossil was a surprise, because bat skeletons are usually too frail to be well-preserved.

Fortunately, the Mahenge area was once covered by calm lakes, the perfect environment for preserving fragile fossils. The lakes lay in ancient diamond-riddled craters formed by volcanic eruptions.

But for the scientists in Tanzania, bats are more precious than diamonds.

"We are ecstatic at our luck," they wrote in an e-mail dispatch posted on their Web site.

A similar bat fossil, found at Messel, Germany, is on display at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

"Who knows what kind of a brick this lays until it gets prepared and studied," said Louis Jacobs. "But it's going to tell us something about the early distribution of mammals 45 million years ago and the kinds of mammals that were there."