The Lake Kariba expedition: Fossil adventures in Zimbabwe

At the start of the year, palaeontologist Kimberley Chapelle joined Prof Jonah Choiniere and a team of “Palaeo Pirates” on an expedition to explore Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. Fortunately, she lived to tell the tale. Below she recalls the adventure, in her own words:

Looking for fossils amongst hippos, from the comfort of a boat that just happens to have to fishing rods on it. Photo by: Kimi Chapelle.
(from left to right) Pia Viglietti, Mitchell Riley, Dave Glynn and Michel Zonda looking for fossils. Photo by: Kimi Chapelle.

“In January 2017, I was unbelievably lucky enough to be part of a team of researchers, or Palaeo Pirates as I call them, who went and explored Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. The aim of the trip was to find fossils and investigate the Vulcanodon type locality. The latter yielded the original and only Vulcanodon material, a sauropodomorph dinosaur described in the 1970s. Our team consisted of Prof Jonah Choiniere, Dr Pia Viglietti and myself from the ESI, accompanied by Zimbabwean local expert guide and fossil finder Steve Edwards, Prof Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London, ESI friends Darlington Munyikwa and Mike Zondo of National Museums and Monuments Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean geologist Tim Broderick and family, Dave Glynn of Harare and last but not least, Rowan MacNiven of San Francisco.

Our mobile home, “Musankwa”. Photo by: Kimi Chapelle.

After an early wake-up in Harare, we all set off towards the docks at Kariba where we boarded a couple of speed boats. Destination: “Dinosaur Island”. Here, we found our mobile home, the houseboat “Musankwa”, waiting for us along with its friendly crew.

After testing the local brew, we set foot on the island for the first time, eyes glued to the ground, looking for those million-year-old “booooooooones” that make us all oh so happy. Although the Vulcanodon’s type locality was not generous to us in new fossil finds, we managed to discover information that will greatly improve our knowledge of this dinosaur’s first appearance date.

The subsequent days were more rewarding as we found many fossil fragments and an associated skeleton on other islands in the area. The real treat came when Steve showed us a locality that he had discovered years ago. On the shores of Matusadona National Park, in a constrained layer, laid an abundance of lungfish toothplates as well as teeth and jaw fragments of a large, basal archosauromorph. As this is still a work in progress, we cannot reveal too much, but it is a story I cannot wait to unravel and learn more about!

Jonah Choiniere next to disarticulated sauropodomorph fossil bones. Photo by: Kimi Chapelle.
Tooth of a more extant animal, the Nile crocodile. Imagine the size of that thing! Kimi’s hand for scale. I totally put it back where I found it. Photo by: Lucy Broderick.

The rest of the trip included finding many many more fossil bones, large fossil wood, gin and tonics (for malaria prevention) and fishing (for dinner). Prospecting in Kariba sure was different and more exciting than any field work I had ever done as it was not just extinct animals we had to look out for, but some of Africa’s most beautiful extant creatures too. Every bush and every square meter of water could be hiding a hippo, elephant or crocodile! This was just a “recce” trip, but one that I will not forget any time soon. I can only hope that it will lead to many more years of collaborations and exploration as we scout the shores of the incredible Lake Kariba in the hopes of recreating the wonderful world that was 200 million years ago.

Some of the many fossils found and collected during the trip. These will be kept in the Bulawayo Collections. Photo by: Kimi Chapelle


THANKS must be given to the crew of the Musankwa, Julie Glynn who handled all the logistics, all of my now new and dear friends/colleagues who live in Zimbabwe for being so reassuring and good in a crisis, Mike Raath for guidance, Mitchell Riley who guided us to new localities, and our long-suffering administrative team Tandi Scott-Turner and Bronwyn Quinn, who helped put the project together financially despite long odds.

*This trip was sponsored in part by DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences.

The palaeo pirates!: (back row) Darlington Munyikwa, Jonah Choiniere, ship captain Costa, Rowan MacNiven, Dave Glynn, Patricia Broderick, Tim Broderick, Pia Viglietti, crew mate Godfrew, Michel Zonda, Paul Barrett, and Steve Edwards. (front row) Crew mates Simba and Neva, Kimi Chapelle, and Lucy Broderick. Photo by: Lucy Broderick.



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