Amanda Watson
News Editor
3 minute read
26 Jul 2015
2:11 pm

The Karoo’s violence in the silence

Amanda Watson

Lava and ash spewing volcanoes, darkening skies and death on a grand scale in a cataclysmic age which led to a global extinction event.

This was the Karoo 260 million years ago and it may have pushed the reset button on the evolution of mammals in the area.

Not only did it wipe out most land based forms of life, but many marine species as well, say a team of international researchers led by the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,

The team, led by Wits postdoctoral fellow Dr Michael Day obtained the time of the event from rocks of the Great Karoo which shed light on the “mass extinction event”.

The team found the event led to the disappearance of a diverse group of early mammal-like reptiles called dinocephalians, which were the largest land-living animals of the time.

In a paper titled When and how did the terrestrial mid-Permian mass extinction occur? Evidence from the tetrapod record of the Karoo Basin, South Africa, published in the latest issue of the Royal Society’s biological journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, fossils collected in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape Provinces showed up to 80% of other species became extinct simultaneously with the dinocephalians in a “geologically short period of time”.

The violence of that era and others are evidenced by the geology and paleontology of the Karoo.

Looking at the sparse scrub and rocks littering the landscape, it is easy to imagine it may have been so terrible, even now the Karoo is still trying to recover.

Certainly it appears to be a land at rest, and the quiet is almost startling.

It’s here where South African National Parks carved out a 90 000 hectares haven of peace, and it’s also where oil companies are waiting for the Department of Environment panel on fracking to give an aye or nay.

However, just because it’s quiet, do not assume nothing is happening as SANParks Karoo National Park deals with issues of its own.

The re-introduction of apex predator Panthero Leo to the park has brought about problems of its own as nature seeks to restore balance. The most obvious being that of Sylvester, the wandering three-year-old lion which may have been chased from the park by two dominant males.

Sylvester. Picture: Gabrielle Venter/SANParks

Sylvester. Picture: Gabrielle Venter/SANParks

It’s a natural occurrence which may have led to a public relations disaster but instead will one day be a story of near mythical proportions around the camp fire as it is retold how Sylvester was tracked, darted, and returned home.

The other problem is since the parks expansion to its current size, the local springbok population has fallen dramatically for reasons unknown.

Park manager Nico van der Walt told The Citizen 2 500 of the dainty antelope had been brought back to supplement the massive drop in numbers.

A study is underway to ascertain the possible reason but current thinking is the efficiency of the local jackal population may be a factor, said van der Walt.

It shows the violence of 260 million years ago may never have really left the Karoo, despite outward appearances.

The size of the Karoo makes it easy however, to escape it all.