South Africa’s Permian Park
You have heard of Jurassic Park! Now visit South Africa’s Permian Park.
Imagine if you could go on a safari 255 million years ago in the Permian Period. What would you see? Palaeontologists can reconstruct the past from the remains of plants and animals preserved in rocks.
The landscape and climate
To the South of Nieu Bethesda the Cape Fold mountains were enormous, the size of the Himalayas. Snow melt from these high mountains fed large rivers which snaked across the land drowning, burying, and preserving the animals and plants. The climate was probably cool and temperate as it was at about the same latitude as New Zealand.
If you visited a modern bushveld game reserve you would see mainly grass and thorn trees. But 255 Million years ago there was no grass, no thorn trees, in fact no flowering plants at all. In this scene the tall trees in the background are called Glossopteris trees. They grew as tall as 30 m and had tongue shaped leaves (Glossopteris means tongue-shaped fern).These extinct plants produced seeds on strange flattened branches unlike anything found before or since in the Plant Kingdom, and are distant relatives of modern pines and yellowwoods. The reed shaped plants are called horsetail ferns, and like the true ferns they had spores instead of seeds. Their leaves were arranged in whorls around jointed stems that looked a lot like bamboo. The rest of the plants in the scene are ferns and mosses which formed ground cover, rather like the grasses of today.
In a game reserve lions are the top predators. 255 Million years ago the top predators were the gorgonopsians. In the scene above a lion-sized gorgonopsian (at the front of the picture) is baring its long sword-like teeth at small dicynodont. In modern game reserves most of the plant eating herbivores are antelope like impala and kudu. Back in the Permian (255 million years ago) the main plant eaters were dicynodonts. The name dicynodont means two dog teeth because the plant eaters had a pair of tusks for self-defence.
They also had a beak for grinding plant material. In the picture there are three types of dicynodont; a pair of Diictodon are being threatened by the gorgonopsian; to the left of the Diictodon are a couple of burrowing Cistecephalus and in the background a group of five Aulacephalodon are roaming across the plain. All these animals were not dinosaurs. They are called therapsids and are the distant animals of modern mammals. Finally, behind the Aulacephalodon is an armoured plant eater, the size of a small car called a pareiosaur.