Fossil bee nest from South Africa sheds light on human ancestor’s living environment

Fossil bee nest from South Africa sheds light on human ancestor’s living environment

In 1925, researchers discovered the first Australopithecus africanus fossil in South Africa – the skull of an early human ancestor thereafter referred to as the ‘Taung Child.’ While this finding helped shape scientists’ understanding of human evolution, there is little evidence available at the site to determine the environment in which the Taung Child lived.

Previous studies have shown that insect-related fossils at a site can yield insights into the paleoenvironment. Bees, for example, tend to build characteristic nests in certain conditions.

Three different individual cells from the fossil bee nest. (A) and (B) have been extracted from the nest, and (C) (although broken in half laterally) remains in the matrix.

Three different individual cells from the fossil bee nest. (A) and (B) have been extracted from the nest, and (C) (although broken in half laterally) remains in the matrix.

In a recent study, researchers from the University College London analyzed CT scans of a fossil bee nest that was discovered near the Taung Child site to determine its internal structure and thus the kinds of bees that built it.

The fossil nest was exceptionally well-preserved, and the structure of its cells and tunnels suggested that a ground-nesting solitary bee made it. These bees typically nest on bare, light dry soil that is exposed to the sun, which bolsters other recent evidence that Au. africanus lived in dry savannahs. Insect-related fossils are common but largely overlooked at sites where human ancestors lived, the researchers said, and their work underscores the contribution such fossils can make to understanding these prehistoric environments.

“When Raymond Dart published his description of the ‘Taung Child’ in 1925 he profoundly changed our understanding of human evolution,” says study co-author Philip Hopley. “In the 90 years following his discovery, attention of anthropologists has moved to other African sites and specimens, and research at Taung has been hampered by the complex geology and uncertain dating. New research at Taung is helping to reconstruct the environment in which this enigmatic little hominin lived and died.”

 

Citation: Parker JF, Hopley PJ, Kuhn BF (2016) Fossil Carder Bee’s Nest from the Hominin Locality of Taung, South Africa. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0161198. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161198

Image Credit: Parker et al (2016)

Author

Tessa is an Editorial Media Associate at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at tgregory@plos.org and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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