Aldo Leopold and Elandsfontein

Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold in the field (
By David Patterson
April 02, 2013

The word “naturalist” is defined as, “a student of natural history: especially a field biologist”. These days, traditional naturalists are few and far between. However, paleoecologists (researchers interested in the habits and interactions of fossil animals and plants) could learn a lot from them. Trained in the art of observing, recording and asking questions about the ways in which organisms interact and “make a living”, the work of a naturalist often serves as a springboard for larger, flashier questions. Researchers that fit within this category read as a virtual “who’s who” of the history of science: Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Alexander von Humboldt, William Henry Edwards, and John Muir, just to name a few. One name that is often found on this list is that of Aldo Leopold.

Leopold’s series of essays, compiled into A Sand County Almanac, record the ecological dynamics of his family farm in Saulk County, Wisconsin. The beauty of this work is in its simplicity. Although he passed away before it was published in 1949, Leopold eloquently describes the ebb and flow of the seasons in southern Wisconsin and their effect on the habits of both plants and animals. As a result, a picture emerges of a man deeply curious about the environment around him. This inquisitiveness permitted Leopold an unprecedented appreciation for ecosystem dynamics and their implications for the survival of species.

At this point, I’m sure that you’re asking, “What does all this have to do with paleoecology?” Bear with me. As a CASHP graduate student interested in the subject, I am afforded the opportunity to participate in projects separated by both expansive geography and geologic time. Although I typically work in the fossil deposits of the Koobi Fora Formation in northern Kenya, earlier this year GW faculty member Dr. David Braun invited me to Elandsfontein, South Africa. In conjunction with the University of Cape Town Archeology Department, Dr. Braun runs a field school at Elandsfotein that provides its undergraduate students with the opportunity for hands-on training. The fossil sediments at Elandsfontein are unique relative to other sites in South Africa in that they represent an open-air deposit (i.e., one in which fossils are collected on the surface of outcrops rather than cave sites, as is typical in South Africa). My role in the project entailed collecting and describing new fossil remains of micromammals, taxa that typically weigh under a few hundred grams. More broadly, I’m interested in reconstructing the localized environments of our ancestors, so micromammals provide excellent proxies. Due to their habitat-specific adaptations and because they live (and die) within a relatively restricted geographic space, these fossils provide extraordinary windows into the habitats of our ancestors.

Elandsfontein’s geographic position relative to the rest of South Africa (from Klein et al. 2007)

Excavations in the dunefields of Elandsfontein

As every person that works in environmentally harsh and unforgiving conditions is aware, the field can be quite the stressful place. Prior to leaving for this trip, a good friend provided me with a copy of A Sand County Almanac. After a particularly tedious day, I came back to camp and picked up the book. What began as flipping through a page or two quickly became total immersion. Within a few hours, I had read it cover to cover. His words focused my attention on natural events that I might have otherwise missed. Leopold suggests that every natural event has meaning within the larger system and should be appreciated. As fate would have it, this very notion would contribute to one of my most memorable experiences at Elandsfontein.

Had it not been for Leopold’s invaluable advice, I might have missed the one of the best discoveries of my field season. Many different creatures prey upon micromammals. However, in most ecosystems owls and other birds of prey are their chief predators. This relationship is particularly important for ecologists because owls regurgitate their prey in the form of pellets (remember middle school biology class…), which can then be used to reconstruct the small mammal community of a particular ecosystem. One evening, after a long day in the field, I noticed a large owl diving through the open doorway of a long-abandoned house. The next morning, I decided to stop at the house and investigate. As I entered through the open door, two barn owls flew past me and out a small window. Once inside (and over the stench), I found hundreds of pellets containing a variety of different micromammal species. This sample will be invaluable in helping us better understand the modern ecosystems of Elandsfontein and how they relate to those preserved in the fossil record.

The take-home message here is one of observation and appreciation. When in the field (especially in far-away places), it’s easy to be overcome by the pressures of data collection and logistics. But, we as paleoanthropologists and paleoecologists have the rare opportunity to travel to interesting places and observe environments foreign to most. While there, it’s important that we all take a moment to slow down, observe and appreciate our natural surroundings. With these observations, we can better understand the ecological dynamics of modern ecosystems and begin to formulate hypotheses about their correlates in the environments inhabited by our ancestors. The beauty of scientific inquiry is that new evidence continues to arise, creating new questions in need of answers. Our observations of the natural world must continue, and curiosity should propel us into new unknowns. So, before we embark on yet another summer of travel and research, it is important to remember Leopold’s art of thoughtful observation. There’s a naturalist in all of us, if only we’re willing to look.