Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

New study to uncover how climate change and tectonics drove evolution in East Africa

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First-of-its-Kind International Study is Rooted in 17 Million Year-Old Whale Fossil

Excavating 16-million-year-old Buluk bonebed. William Woto, Turkana Basin Institute Technician (front) and Vianna Roland, De Anza College student crew member (back). © Isaiah Nengo.

STONY BROOK, NY –  A 17 million-year-old whale fossil discovered in the 1970s is the impetus for new research led by Leakey Foundation grantee Isaiah Nengo. This research project takes a unique approach to uncovering the course of mammalian evolution in East Africa. 

The whale fossil represents a massive change from the Miocene to today in Kenya’s Turkana Basin, as the fossil of this sea animal was originally found 740 miles inland and 620 meters in elevation – an indication perhaps of a transformed geological and ecological landscape with the open-ended question: Why was the whale there? 

That is one of the questions the Stony Brook University-led international team will seek to answer when it launches the new, first-of-its-kind project in January 2021. The aim is to understand how climate change and tectonics on Miocene ecosystems in this region influenced life and evolution, from the whale to now.

The work is supported by a four-year $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Frontier Research in Earth Sciences (FRES) Program. Named the Turkana Miocene Project, the research is multinational, interdisciplinary and involves five core U.S. universities. The goal is to better define through fieldwork, laboratory analysis and climate modeling how tectonics and climate interacted to shape the environment that gave rise to the ancestors of both humans and our closest living relatives, the other apes that emerged in Africa.

Cyprian Nyete (left) and Isaiah Nengo (right) excavating a 13-million-year-old fossil ape nicknamed Alesi. They are using fine picks and brushes, as well as a hardener to protect the fossil bone. © Isaiah Nengo.

“A longstanding question at the intersection of Earth and Life Sciences is: What roles, if any, do climate and tectonics play in the evolution of life? The East African Rift is among the best places to study the influences of Earth processes on the evolution of mammals,” explains Leakey Foundation grantee Isaiah Nengo, PhD, Principal Investigator, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director of Stony Brook University’s Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). “Here, uniquely, the region’s geologic and climate histories, including the formation of the rift system that is the cradle of humankind, are preserved in sedimentary rocks. Our collaborative work will tease out how tectonics and climate come together to drive evolution.”

The research team will tackle a task not done before by investigating the basin’s sediments, and the fossils they contain, to gain insight into ancient climate and habitats that record the emergence of humans, their primate ancestors, and African mammals over the last 25 million years.

Summary of Earth, Climate and Life events impacting the Turkana Basin from 32-0 Ma (modified from Wichura, H., Jacobs, L.L., Lin, A., Polcyn, M.J., Manthi, F.K., Winkler, D.A., Strecker, M.R. and Clemens, M. (2015) A 17-My-old whale constrains onset of uplift and climate change in east Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112,3910-3915).

It is estimated that the human-chimpanzee common ancestor evolved approximately 7.5 million years ago (mya) and diverged from the common ancestor with the gorilla ancestor about 9.3 mya. Meanwhile, the common ancestor of the great apes and humans is estimated to have diverged from the ancestor of the gibbons and siamangs approximately 19.1 mya. All these key divergence events would have occurred in the time period known as the Miocene (from about 23 mya to 5 mya).

Professor Nengo will collaborate with Stony Brook Geosciences Professors and co-investigators Gregory Henkes and William Holt, along with the international team. They will explore relationships between tectonics, climate, and mammal evolution in the Turkana Basin using integrated field, laboratory, and modeling studies.

New and existing data will be combined to study the links between rift development, climate change, and their respective roles in vegetation and mammal evolution.

Geologists inspecting the 13-million-year-old tuff at
Napudet. From Left to right Ellen Currano, Ellen Miller,
and Craig Feibel. © Isaiah Nengo.

Years one and two will consist of data collection from the field. The third year will involve laboratory analyses. In the fourth year, the team will conduct the analysis and be on site at TBI to produce a tectonic model that reconstructs rift evolution in this region of East Africa over the past 25 million years or Miocene period.

That tectonic model will be integrated with climate-vegetation models of equal or better resolution. Independent geological, geochemical, paleoecological, and paleontological data will be used to validate these model outputs to distinguish the influences of tectonics and climate on the evolution of Turkana ecosystems and mammals.

“This integrated approach across geoscience subdisciplines is really the future of paleoenvironmental reconstruction,” adds Gregory Henkes, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University. “The challenge of separating commingled effects of climate, tectonics, and evolution is incredibly complex. We hope to leverage the best of these different approaches to demonstrate that its possible, at least at the scale of a single, very important basin.”

About the FRES-Supported International Research Team

The international team members include experts in tectonics, sedimentology, geochronology, isotope geochemistry, paleoecology, climate modeling, and paleontology.

International collaborators include team members based at the National Museums of Kenya and University of Helsinki, Finland.

NSF’s FRES also provides funding to complete extensive fieldwork that will provide training for a cohort of students and postdoctoral scholars at Stony Brook University, Lamont, Rutgers, University of Michigan, Hamilton College, and Turkana University College.

Other co-investigators include: Ali Bahadori, Catherine Beck, Stephen Cox, Craig Feibel*, Mikael Fortelius, Sidney Hemming, Rahab Kinyanjui, Francis Kirera*, Nasser Malit, Sara Mana, Ellen Miller*, Guilluame Dupont Nivet, Chris Poulsen, Patricia Princehouse, Troy Rasbury, Gabrielle Russo*, Mae Saslaw, Peter Ungar*, Kevin Uno, Liam Zachary, and Indrė Žliobaitė.

*Indicates Leakey Foundation grantee.

Permission for field and laboratory research in Kenya is provided by the Kenya Government with the support of the National Museums of Kenya.

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