Palaeontology News

Vacancy: Director

Closing Date: 30th September 2016

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (WITS) is located in the economic heartland of South Africa and in close proximity to some of the most important fossil-bearing sites in the world. The fossil collections at University hold extensive mammal-like reptiles, early dinosaurs, plants, insects and hominins of international significance. The Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) has been established to create a centralised, sustainable, and prolific centre of research excellence.

Position: The Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Postgraduate Affairs at WITS University invites suitably qualified and experienced applicants to apply for the position of Director for the ESI. Purpose: The Director will lead and manage the ESI to maintain and grow its world class reputation of excellence in research, training (technical, undergraduate and mainly postgraduate), collections curation and outreach related to the palaeosciences. The ESI is an inter-faculty and multidisciplinary research institution. It enjoys a long and illustrious history of discovery and scientific achievement and is uniquely synonymous with the name and good reputation of WITS. The palaeosciences include a range of knowledge disciplines related to the study of evolution of current and previously living things including, but not limited to, humankind, animals and plants starting from their fossil remains. Some of these disciplines would include paleontology, palaeo-anthropology, palaeo-botany, etc. Key responsibilities: The primary responsibility of the Director is to lead and manage the ESI. This means that the candidate will need to write and implement five year plans, direct appropriate research programmes, and manage the Institute on a day to day basis. The candidate will also be expected to make a scholarly contribution to the Institute.

The requirements for this position include a:

  • PhD in a suitable palaeoscience;
  • Distinguished scholarly record in a field related to palaeoscience;
  • Record of distinguished academic leadership;
  • To be appointed at the level of Professor.

  • The following competencies are vital:

  • Excellent research record;
  • Excellent management record in an academic environment;
  • Highly developed communication (written and spoken) skills using the English language;
  • Excellent record of academic citizenship;
  • Experience of activities related to curation;
  • Experience of activities related to outreach;
  • International standing in the palaeosciences.
  • Remuneration and conditions of service: A competitive university package with excellent benefits offered, commensurate with the level of appointment. The offer will be full-time appointment lasting for a period of five years, but renewable for another period of five years depending on performance and achievement.

    To apply, please submit a covering letter explicitly addressing the above, as well as a detailed CV with names, addresses, contact numbers and e-mail addresses of 3 referees and certified copies of qualifications, as well as a South African ID (Passport if not South African).

    Informal inquires may be directed to Dr. Christine Steininger (, Project Manager of the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

    External applicants are invited to apply, by registering their profile on the Wits i-recruitment platform located at and submitting their application. Internal employees are invited to apply directly on Oracle by following the path:iWits /Self Service application/" Apply for a job". Job Category: Academic - Research, Vacancy Name IRC59964.

    The University is committed to employment equity. Preference may be given to appointable applicants from the underrepresented designated groups in terms of the relevant employment equity plans and policies of the University. The University retains the right not to make an appointment, to re-advertise and to verify all information provided by candidates.

    Please note that correspondence will only be entered into with shortlisted candidates.

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    PSSA 2014 Conference Highlights

    PSSA 2014 Meeting Photo

    PSSA 2014 Meeting Photo


    Best Talk Tyler Faith

    Best Oral Presentation: Tyler Faith


    Best Student Oral Presentation: Ashley Kruger


    Best Student Poster Mhairi Reid

    Best Poster: Mhairi Reid

    Bob and Laura Brain Award for the Most Fun with Fossils: Pia Viglietti & Cameron Penn-Clark

    Order of the Boot Alexander Parkinson
    Order of the Boot: Alexander Parkinson

    PAST award Robert Muir
    NEW PAST award for the most promising young researcher: Robert Muir

    Dr Kevin Hand, Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, recieving a gift for his keynot address on finding life on other planets

    New Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences

    Congratulations to the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who successfully won the bid to host the new Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, which was launched on 11th April 2013. This endeavour was initiated by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) in order to protect our natural heritage and facilitate outstanding research in the fields of palaeontology, palaeo-anthropology, archaeology and related disciplines. South Africa’s geographic advantage and rich fossil heritage are natural catalysts for inspiring the implementation of such an endeavour.

    The Centre will offer world-class facilities to stimulate palaeoscience research, encourage national and international collaborations, support palaeoscience education at schools, universities and museums, promote palaeo-tourism and conserve our palaeoscience heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.


    PSSA 2012 Conference Highlights

      Delegates of the PSSA 2012 conference in Cape Town. Click on the photo to enlarge

    Tyler Lyson, recipient of the Harrismith Mug for Best Presentation

    Lara Sciscio, recipient of the Lystrosaurus Shield for Best Student Presentation

    Ashley Kruger, recipient of the Lystrosaurus Cast for Best Poster

    Alex Parkinson, partial recipient of the Bob and Laura Brain Award, for having the "Most fun with fossils!"

    Sifelani Jirah, partial recipient of the Bob and Laura Brain Award, for having the "Most fund with fossils!"

    Brigette Cohen, recipient of the Order of the Boot, for the most unbelievable presentation!

    Past President Jennifer Botha-Brink (left) passing on the title to new President Bernhard Zipfel (right)

    Bruce Rubidge, having fun at the PSSA dinner!
    Bruce Rubidge, having fun at the PSSA dinner!

    PSSA 2012 Conference Excursion Highlights






    The Size Gap in Dinosaurs

    Dinosaurs were mostly large, with few small species. This is unique amongst terrestrial vertebrates and when the K-T extinction occurred, only large animals were affected, and the lack of small dinosaurs meant they were too poorly represented to recover. The explanation, according to a new study led by Daryl Codron from the National Museum in Bloemfontein, and University of Zürich, Switzerland, is because these large creatures had extremely small offspring. Together with Marcus Clauss and Dennis Müller from the University of Zürich, and Chris Carbone from the Zoological Society of London, Daryl Codron investigated how ecosystems dominated by large animals that reproduce by laying eggs (oviparity) differ from those dominated by animals giving birth to live young (viviparity, as in mammals). Their study, published in the journal Biology Letters, may explain why mammals, but not dinosaurs persisted after the K-T crisis.

    A mother dinosaur weighing four tons would have laid several, small eggs, each weighing no more than about 1.5 kg. This means the mother dinosaur was 2 500 times heavier than her newly hatched baby. By comparison, a mother elephant, which is just as heavy, only weighs 22 times as much as her new-born calf. The staggering difference in size between newly hatched dinosaurs and their parents was attributed to the fact that there are size limits on eggs. After all, larger eggs require a thicker shell, which decreases permeability and prevents oxygen from reaching the embryo.

    As a consequence, dinosaurs must have passed through numerous life stages as they grew, utilizing a different set of resources during each phase of growth. Ultimately, these growing individuals would have competed for niche space with older individuals and even adults of smaller species. Escaping this trap, the parents of the largest species were able to reproduce, and so the smaller species suffered losses. In mammals, in which there are much fewer life stages to pass through, and in which babies are fed directly with milk from the mother, the young do not compete with smaller species so intensely.

    The study used simple mathematical models to support the idea that the complex growth histories of dinosaurs reduced diversity amongst smaller species. In fact, the model predicted dinosaurs had to have been either very small (the size of birds) or very large (greater than 1 000 kg), with few species in between. Their model also showed that competition from young dinosaurs was one reason why mammals could not evolve into larger size classes, and one reason why very small dinosaurs would have gone extinct due to competition from small mammals and young dinosaurs had they not adopted a totally new lifestyle earlier in the Mesozoic - as it is, those very small dinosaurs took to the skies and ultimately evolved into the dinosaurs still alive today, birds.

    When the K-T extinction hit, the lack of small and intermediate-sized dinosaurs proved to be an Achilles' heel. A reproductive strategy which had given them an advantage over other animals for more than 150 million years (because laying eggs meant high reproductive rates, and because multiple life stages ensured that when habitats were lost at least some individuals were able to utilize remaining or new resources, they could always recover from environmental or population crashes), was finally overcome by the peculiar K-T events which only affected large individuals. Birds, and more so mammals, were then free to evolve into larger size classes and have dominated terrestrial ecosystems ever since.