National History Museum


  • Research visit by leading world authority on muscid flies

    25 January 2013

    The Department of Entomology hosted a three month research visit by Dr Márcia Couri (Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the world’s leading authority on muscid flies.  Dr Couri’s principle research objective was to study the Museum’s collection of unidentified Afrotropical muscid flies for a chapter on systematics in the Manual of the Afrotropical Diptera.  The study resulted in the identification of 159 species in 39 genera, representing 18% of species and 66% of genera currently recognized in the Afrotropical Region.  The study will also result in the description of six species and one new genus, 54 new locality records for the region and new Muscidae hosts of conopid flies.  All contributions will be co-authored with Dr Ashley Kirk-Spriggs (National Museum) and Dr Adrian Pont (Oxford University Museum of Natural History, United Kingdom).


  • Historian receives SALA award

    15 November 2012
    From left: Mr Siphiwo Mahala, Dr Hannes Haasbroek and Mr Paul Mashatile.
    From left: Mr Siphiwo Mahala, Dr Hannes Haasbroek and Mr Paul Mashatile.

    Dr Hannes Haasbroek, Head of the History Department, received the prestigious SALA (South African Literature Awards) prize for creative non-fiction for his book ’n Seun soos Bram, published in 2011 by Umuzi. Hannes received the prize on 10 November 2012 at a gala-evening held at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein campus. The prize was handed to him by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Paul Mashatile.  Also at the ceremony was Mr Siphiwo Mahala, author and Head of Books and Publishers at the Department of Arts and Culture.  ‘n Seun soos Bram is a treatment of the life of advocate and anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer.  This is not a book dealing primarily with the tragedy in Fischer’s life or an analytical work about his communism.  It is the story of a promising Afrikaner boy in the context of his prominent and nationalist Free State family.  It is also the story of his mother Ella who never abandoned either her own nationalist views or her devotion to her son.  This is a story of intrigue and espionage, and of Bram’s happy childhood and close ties with his mother. It is partly based on new documents such as family letters and Ella’s diaries.

  • Fischer biographer at Franschoek Literary Festival

    31 May 2012
    From left: Ruth Rice, Hannes Haasbroek & Ilse Wilson
    From left: Ruth Rice, Hannes Haasbroek & Ilse Wilson

    Hannes Haasbroek, historian at the National Museum and author of the biography ‘n Seun soos Bram – ‘n Portret van Bram Fischer en sy ma Ella (Umuzi, 2011), participated in a panel discussion of his book during the sixth Franschoek Literary Festival, which took place in May 2012.  Also on the panel were Bram Fischer’s daughters, Ruth Rice (left) and Ilse Wilson, who shared their memories of life as the children of communist parents in apartheid South Africa.  There was much interest in the Fischer discussion and all tickets were sold out.

    The mainly English festival draws many famous writers and poets from all over South Africa as well as international literary figures.  Afrikaans writers are also accommodated and this year authors such as Deon Meyer, Dana Snyman, Kerneels Breytenbach and Marita van der Vyver were present to discuss their latest books.

  • Dinosaurs' Small Eggs Their Achilles Heel

    11 May 2012

    A number of changes at the transition from the Cretaceous to the Tertiary led to an enormous mass extinction that terminated the era of the dinosaurs – even if dinosaurs survived as birds to our times. Why did mammals recover so successfully from this event, whereas non-avian dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus or Apatosaurus did not? Dr Daryl Codron, recently appointed Honorary Research Associate of the National Museum and hosted at the Florisbad Quaternary Research Department, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and the Zoological Society of London, showedthat the different reproductive strategies of dinosaurs and mammals may be responsible – a fundamental difference in constraints to oviparous (egg-laying) and viviparous (giving birth to live young) animals.


    The explanation, published in Biology Letters, is based on the concept that animals of a certain body size occupy a certain niche. The main difference between dinosaurs and mammals is that whereas newborn mammals are relatively large in large species, and indirectly via milk use the same niche as their mothers, dinosaur hatchlings cannot increase in size in proportion to the size of their parents. Eggs cannot increase in size, because larger eggs need thicker shells, and shell thickness is constrained by the need of the embryo for oxygen that has to diffuse through that shell. Therefore, the size difference between dinosaur hatchlings and their parents is enormous – a 4 ton elephant mother is ‘only’ about 22 times the mass of her newborn, whereas a 4 ton dinosaur female was about 2500 times the mass of her hatchling!


    Therefore, large dinosaur species did not only occupy one niche during their lifetimes, but had to go through many different niches – for 1 kg, 10 kg, 100 kg, 1000 kg up to 30000 kg and more. One single dinosaur species would thus have occupied a series of niches that would be filled by many different mammal species. The researchers argue that therefore much fewer small and intermediate-sized dinosaur species could have co-existed as compared to mammal species. Actually, when collating body size data from fossil assemblages of avian and non-avian dinosaurs, there is a body size gap at about 2-60 kg that contains fewer species than expected. The researchers used a series of computer simulations to show that competition from larger species leads to this gap in dinosaurs, whereas no such effect is found in mammals. The simulations also show that in the presence of dinosaurs, mammals were held to small body sizes because of competition from juveniles of large dinosaur species. In addition to this, the simulations showed that competition amongst the smallest (<2 kg) dinosaurs, coupled with competition from small mammals, could have forced many small dinosaur species to extinction, or forced them to occupy an entirely new niche space (the aerial niches of birds).


    The body size gap did not pose a problem for the terrestrial predominance of dinosaurs for 150 million years. It was only the catastrophe at the end of the Cretaceous, during which animals above a body size threshold of about 10-25 kg went extinct, that led to the dinosaurs’ demise. Mammals had many species below that threshold from which new species could evolve to occupy the now wide-open niches for larger animals. But because of the body size gap, dinosaurs simply had too few species with which to enter this new phase of the competition race.


    Image: Jeanne Peter, University of Zurich,Switzerland


    Further Reading:

    Codron D, Carbone C, Müller DWH, Clauss M (2012) Ontogenetic niche shifts in dinosaurs influenced size, diversity and extinction in terrestrial vertebrates. Biology Letters DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0240

  • Ashley Kirk-spriggs graduates

    19 April 2012

    Ashley H. Kirk-Spriggs (Head of Entomology) graduated with the degree of Doctor or Philosophy from Rhodes University, Grahamstown on the 12th April, with a thesis entitled “A systematic revision of selected genera of Afrotropical Curtonotidae (Diptera: Schizophora: Ephydroidea) – a phylogenetic approach”.


  • Unearthing the past

    8 March 2012
    PAST's Walking Tall interactive educational theatre project
    PAST's Walking Tall interactive educational theatre project

    South Africa is world-renowned for its extensive fossil record. The rocks of the Karoo Basin contain the most complete record of the origins and evolution of mammals and the earliest dinosaurs, making South Africa one of the top palaeontological destinations in the world. Yet, the majority of South Africans are unaware of our precious fossil heritage and our place in the global community as one of the leaders in palaeontology. The reasons for this are twofold; a lack of awareness, and a lack of understanding. Although Evolution became part of the school curriculum in 2008, many of our young learners still do not fully understand the concept of Evolution and its importance to the human race.

    Much still needs to be done to promote a sense of awareness and pride in our African heritage and to bring about an appreciation for past life on Earth and how we, as humans, came to be here. Thus, the Karoo Palaeontology Department of the National Museum, Bloemfontein resolved to take on this challenge by implementing a programme entitled “Unearthing the Past”. Partial Lystrosaurus fossil skulls were collected and prepared for the specific purpose of distributing them for educational purposes. Ten selected schools each received a package of printed information, CDs, posters, casts of fossils and a real Lystrosaurus skull, which gave them the opportunity to touch the remains of an animal that lived 250 million years ago.

    The programme ran from 27 February to 2 March 2012 in conjunction with the Palaeontological Scientific Trust’s Walking Tall Programme. The Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) is based in Johannesburg and is a non-profit organization involved in supporting palaeontological and archaeological research and education in Africa. The Walking Tall Programme is an interactive educational theatre project, which aims to bring the history of life on Earth to life via the performing arts. This was PAST’s first visit to the Free State and the positive response from the learners was overwhelming. Many schools have asked PAST’s Walking Tall Programme to return to Bloemfontein and the National Museum has resolved to work with PAST in order to bring the Walking Tall Programme back to Bloemfontein.

  • ANC Centenary

    23 December 2011
    ANC Centenary temporary exhibition
    ANC Centenary temporary exhibition

    On 8 January 2012 the African National Congress (ANC) celebrates its 100th birthday. To commemorate this historical moment in South Africa’s political history, the National Museum has put up a display on the history of this political organisation. The display consists of banners that tell the history of the ANC by means of a timeline with certain key events highlighted. A fascinating aspect of the display is the information on the real founding venue of the ANC in Bloemfontein that was discovered by one of the National Museum’s historians, Dr Hannes Haasbroek, in 2002. Photographs of the founding venue, namely the Wesleyan School in Fort Street, Waaihoek, as well as a description of the events of 8 January 1912, provide interesting reading for the visitor. The display is further enhanced by books and documents on the ANC and its leaders.

  • John Nyaphuli receives Morris F. Skinner Award

    23 November 2011
    John Nyaphuli with the 2011 Morris F. Skinner Award
    John Nyaphuli with the 2011 Morris F. Skinner Award

    John Nyaphuli, the National Museum’s most experienced fossil preparator, was awarded the 2011 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Morris F. Skinner Award.  This award is presented for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge through the making of important collections of fossil vertebrates and encouraging, training or teaching others towards the same pursuits.  Based in the United States, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is palaeontology’s largest international society.  John is only the second South African to have won this award, after the late James Kitching, who won it in 2000.

    John has 38 years of experience in the field and has recovered hundreds of fossils, including six specimens that are completely new to science. His efforts in the field have been recognized by numerous researchers and in honour of his contribution to palaeontology, two new species, the basal anomodont therapsids (ancient ancestors of mammals) Australosyodon nyaphuli and Patranomodon nyaphulii, have been named after him. He was also awarded Honorary Life Membership of the National Museum in 1999 and Honorary Life Membership of the Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa in 2004 for his outstanding contributions to palaeontology.

    John, at the age of 78, travelled to Las Vegas with Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink in November 2011 to attend the 71st annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in order to receive the award in person.