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.
Conventional wisdom holds that the precursors of modern placental and marsupial mammals arose toward the end of the Jurassic in the Northern Hemisphere, based on the ages and locations of the earliest remains of these shrewlike creatures, which are characterized by so-called tribosphenic molars. But the Malagasy jaw, which Flynn and Wyss have attributed to a new genus and species, Ambondro mahabo, possesses tribosphenic teeth and dates back some 167 million years to the Middle Jurassic. As such, their fossil suggests that tribosphenic mammals arose at least 25 million years earlier than previously thought and possibly in the south rather than the north.
No one has disputed the age of A. mahabo, but not everyone agrees that the finding indicates that tribosphenic mammals originated in the south. Fossil mammal expert Zhe-Xi Luo, now at the University of Chicago, and several of his colleagues have suggested that A. mahabo and a similarly surprising fossil beast from Australia named Ausktribosphenos nyktos might instead represent a second line of tribosphenic mammals—one that gave rise to the egg-laying monotremes. But Flynn and Wyss counter that some of the features that those researchers use to link the southern tribosphenic mammals to monotremes may be primitive resemblances and therefore not indicative of an especially close evolutionary relationship.
As with so many other debates in paleontology, much of the controversy over when and where these mammal groups first appeared stems from the fact that so few ancient bones have ever been found. With luck, this season's fieldwork will help fill in gaps in the fossil record. And recovering more specimens of A. mahabo or remains of previously unknown mammals could bolster considerably Flynn and Wyss's case for a single, southern origin for the ancestors of modern placentals and marsupials.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast of bread, peanut butter and coffee, we are back in the vehicles, following the GPS's trail of electronic bread crumbs across the grassland to a fossil locality the team found at the end of its previous expedition. Stands of doum palms and thorny Mokonazy trees dot the landscape, which the dry season has left largely parched. By the time we reach our destination, the morning's pleasant coolness has given way to a rather toastier temperature. “When the wind stops, it cooks,” remarks William Simpson, a collections manager for the Field Museum, coating his face with sunscreen. Indeed, noontime temperatures often exceed 90 humid degrees Fahrenheit.
Flynn instructs the group to start at the base of the hillside and work up. Meanwhile he and Wyss will survey the surrounding area, looking for additional exposures of the fossil-bearing horizon. “If it's something interesting, come back and get me,” he calls. Awls in hand and eyes inches from the ground, the workers begin to scour the gravel-strewn surface for small bones, clues that delicate mammal fossils are preserved below. They crawl and slither in pursuit of their quarry, stopping only to swig water from sun-warmed bottles.
Because early mammal remains are so minute (A. mahabo's jaw fragment, for example, measures a mere 3.6 millimeters in length), such sleuthing rarely leads to instant gratification. Rather the team collects sediments likely to contain such fossils and ships that material back to the U.S. for closer inspection. Within a few hours, a Lilliputian vertebra and femur fragment turn up—the first indications that the fossil hunters have hit pay dirt. “It's a big Easter egg hunt,” Wyss quips. “The eggs are hidden pretty well, but we know they're out there.”
By the third day the crew has identified a number of promising sites and bagged nearly a ton of sediment for screen washing. Members head for a dammed-up stream that locals use to water their animals. Despite the scorching heat, those working in the water must don heavy rubber boots and gloves to protect against the parasites that probably populate the murky green pool. They spend the next few hours sifting the sediments through screen-bottomed baskets and buckets. Wyss spreads the resulting concentrate on a big blue plastic tarp to dry. Volunteers at the Field Museum will eventually look for fossils in this concentrate under a microscope, one spoonful at a time, but Wyss has a good feeling about the washed remains already. “You can actually see bone in the mix,” he observes. The haul that yielded A. mahabo, in contrast, offered no such hints to the naked eye.
Hot and weary from the screen washing, the researchers eagerly break for lunch. Under the shade of a Mokonazy tree, they munch their sardine, Gouda and jalapeño sandwiches, joking about the bread, which, four days after leaving its bakery in Antananarivo, has turned rather tough. Wyss ceremoniously deposits a ration of jelly beans into each pair of upturned palms. Some pocket the treats for later, others trade for favorite flavors, and a few ruefully relinquish their sweets, having lost friendly wagers made earlier.
Usually lunch is followed by a short repose, but today nature has a surprise in store. A brushfire that had been burning off in the distance several hours ago is now moving rapidly toward us from the northeast, propelled by an energetic wind. The crackling sound of flames licking bone-dry grass crescendos, and ashen leaf remnants drift down around us. We look on, spellbound, as cattle egrets collect in the fire's wake to feast on toasted insects, and birds of prey circle overhead to watch for rodents flushed out by the flames. Only the stream separates us from the blaze, but reluctant to abandon the screen washing, Flynn and Wyss decide to wait it out. Such fires plague Madagascar. Often set by farmers to encourage new grass growth, they sometimes spread out of control, especially in the tinderbox regions of the northwest. Indeed, the explorers will face other fires that season, including one that nearly consumes their campsite.
An hour later the flames have subsided, and the team returns to the stream to finish the screening quickly. Banks once thick with dry grass now appear naked and charred. Worried that the winds might pick up again, we pack up and go to one of the team's other fossil localities to dig for the rest of the afternoon.
Following what has already become the routine, we return to camp by six. Several people attend to the filtering of the drinking water while the rest help to prepare dinner. During the “cocktail hour” of warm beer and a shared plate of peanuts, Flynn and Wyss log the day's events and catalogue any interesting specimens they have collected. Others write field notes and letters home by the light of their headlamps. By nine, bellies full and dishes washed, people have retired to their tents. Camp is silent, the end of another day's efforts to uncover the past. —K.W.