Researchers from the anthropology department and Brooklyn College have led a team that has discovered what is likely the most extensive collection of extinct lemur fossils ever found in an underwater cave.
In the fall of 2014, co-primary investigators Laurie Godfrey, professor emerita of anthropology, and Alfred Rosenberger, professor of anthropology and archaeology at Brooklyn College, found thousands of specimens in the first exploration of three deep underwater inland caves on the island of Madagascar off of the southeastern coast of Africa. During two days of extraction, Godfrey and Rosenberger examined bones removed from the submerged caves by a team of eight divers assembled from around the world. They found remains of numerous recently extinct species, including giant lemurs, elephant birds, Cryptoprocta spelea (giant fossa), horned crocodiles and extinct hippos, which all roamed the island until around 1,000 years ago. Because the remote caves were previously unexplored—one was a swimming hole and tourist sightseeing destination located within a national park—many of the skeletal remains found by the team in the “lemur graveyards” were whole, intact and complete, which is rare in paleontological finds.
The two-week expedition, which was funded in part by both the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, marks the start of what the researchers hope will be a multi-year project to further investigate the caves and evaluate their discoveries. The fossils they examined this past fall likely represent only a small percentage of the total record within the caves, as the divers were able to extract—and subsequently replace—only some of the bones they found laying on the cave floor. If they receive the necessary funding, they hope to return to the sites this summer to continue their work and have the divers do a more complete extraction of the bones on the cave floors, as well as probe for bones hidden below the silt and mud.
In addition to unlocking secrets about the past fauna of Madagascar, Godfrey and Rosenberger believe that the caves may also provide a record of historic climate change and environmental moisture through the study of stalactites and stalagmites. This information could lead to a better understanding of how environmental changes on the island may have impacted its inhabitants, and possibly led to these species’ extinctions.
In the long term, the researchers hope to use their growing relationship with governmental agencies and universities within the nation of Madagascar to turn the caves into underwater museums and teaching sites.
The researchers are currently submitting their initial findings for publication.