Genus’s new leadership looks to the future


Meet Prof Jennifer Botha, Genus’s New Interim Director

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard

It seems a perfect description of GENUS’ new Interim Director, Jennifer Botha’s work. As an osteohistologist studying fossil bone microstructure, Botha focuses on mass extinction events to identify patterns that could help us better navigate current environmental changes. “We’re going through a very rapid mass extinction even though it doesn’t seem like it on a day-to-day basis. So, we’re looking at past animals that survived rapid environmental changes. This information helps us understand which species might be vulnerable now, which could survive, and which we need to help conserve. We must try to save the diversity on the planet, or we will become one of the casualties.”

Botha spent more than two decades studying the end-Permian mass extinction, which occurred around 252 million years ago, as the previous Head of the Karoo Palaeontology Department at the National Museum in Bloemfontein. She uses various techniques such as geology, biostratigraphy, geochemistry, morphology, and osteohistology to test theories regarding differential species’ survival during these events. “Surprisingly, most fossils are preserved well enough to see details such as where the blood vessels were, the orientation of collagen fibres, and the placement of bone cells. This can tell us different things about how the animal grew, how old it was when it died, how fast it grew, or what growth strategy it used.”

Breeding Young as a Survival Strategy during Earth’s Greatest Mass Extinction in Nature Scientific Reports.

The work has yielded fascinating results, such as showing that Permian species lived longer and took longer to reach reproductive maturity than animals just after that extinction, which reproduced and died young in the unpredictable, harsh post-extinction environment. “Only several million years later did therapsids, the indirect ancestors of mammals, exhibit similar life histories to those in the Permian. This shows the effects of a major mass extinction and what type of survival strategies might work after substantial environmental perturbation.”

Recently, her research expanded to include the end-Triassic extinction, in collaboration with ESI researcher Prof Jonah Choiniere and Prof Roger Benson from the American Museum of Natural History and Dr Paul Barrett from the London Natural History Museum. “There was immense faunal turnover during the Triassic period. Therapsids started as the dominant animals, and dinosaurs were small and relatively rare during the Early Triassic. But by the end of that Period, therapsids were small, and dinosaurs were set to become the dominant species in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods thereafter. This phenomenon has been studied from several angles, including environment and climate, but I’m looking at the biology of the animals to find out how their life histories changed.”

For one, preliminary results show that sauropodiforms, the ancestors of the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs that weighed up to 70 tonnes, grew fast prior to gigantism. This goes against the traditional hypothesis that only the giant sauropods grew quickly, suggesting that rapid growth did not evolve in tandem with gigantism, but was perhaps a prerequisite for it.

She calls this important finding a “tangent” – one of many surprising findings along the way as the researchers attempt to create a large database of Triassic vertebrates and compare similarities and differences between the two major extinction events.

This means the work has ballooned, providing new opportunities for students and various laboratories at Wits regarding co-supervision and collaborative projects.

And that is an important part of Botha’s vision for GENUS. “The centre plays a critical role in sustaining palaeontology in South Africa, creating study and funding avenues for researchers and students. I hope to expose the work done here globally to provide even more opportunities for students. South Africans do exceptionally high-quality work in the field, which needs to be appreciated more.”

Because GENUS has been so efficient and successful, she says, there has been a significant increase in the number of students currently pursuing a career in the palaeosciences. There are numerous transdisciplinary, international collaborations that South African researchers are relying on to bring their research to fruition. But, of course, this needs to be sustained – and diversity should be kept top of mind. “This is why we do a lot of science engagement, to make the youth more aware of the field and to get them interested in STEM subjects in general. Children find palaeontology very exciting, and even if they don’t become palaeontologists, it could encourage them to be interested in other STEM fields and grow the scientific community in the country.”

GENUS has also positively impacted diversity, she adds. “When the centre opened, the percentage of females in the field was very low. Today, 50% of our students and researchers are female, and I am the first female director of the centre. GENUS has done a lot to encourage and support women, and it proves that this approach works.”

GENUS has identified five strategic goals developed in line with the DSI South African Strategy for Palaeosciences. “To achieve these goals, the centre has six programmes focused on elevating palaeosciences in South Africa and creating a supportive environment for researchers and students. This will ensure they continue to make an impactful contribution to our future through the lens of the past.”

Select articles from Prof Jennifer Botha

Osteohistology of the Triassic archosauromorphs Prolacerta, Proterosuchus, Euparkeria, and Erythrosuchus from the Karoo Basin of South Africa

Osteohistology and taphonomy support social aggregation in the early ornithischian dinosaur Lesothosaurus diagnosticus

Rapid growth preceded gigantism in sauropodomorph evolution

The paleobiology and paleoecology of South African Lystrosaurus

Breeding Young as a Survival Strategy during Earth’s Greatest Mass Extinction