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Fieldwork: Tiny Bones to Pick

Paleontologists brave wildfires, parasites and scorching temperatures in search of ancient mammal fossils

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The three Land Rovers pause while John Flynn consults the device in his hand. “Is the GPS happy?” someone asks him. Flynn concludes that it is, and the caravan continues slowly through the bush, negotiating trails usually traversed by oxcart. We have been driving since seven this morning, when we left Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo. Now, with the afternoon's azure sky melting into pink and mauve, the group is anxious to locate a suitable campsite. A small cluster of thatched huts comes into view, and Flynn sends an ambassador party on foot to ask the inhabitants whether we may camp in the area. By the time we reach the nearby clearing, the day's last light has disappeared, and we pitch our tents in the dark. Tomorrow the real work begins.

The expedition team of seven Malagasies and six Americans, led in 2000 by paleontologists Flynn and André Wyss, now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the University of California, Santa Barbara, respectively, has come to this remote part of northwestern Madagascar in search of fossils belonging to early mammals. Previous prospecting in the region had revealed red and buff-colored sediments dating back to the Jurassic period—the ancient span of time (roughly 201 million to 145 million years ago) during which mammals made their debut. Among the fossils unearthed was a tiny jaw fragment with big implications.

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