Archive for the ‘Palaeobiodiversity’ Category

Thousands of years old ‘near fossilized’ animal remains found in Yala

October 7, 2016

Bone fragments believed to be animals that died thousands of years ago were discovered from a rock pool in Yala this week.

They are parts of skeletons of elephants, tortoises, wild buffaloes, spotted deer, wild boar and other animals, say students of the Kelaniya University Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology who are studying the fossils.

The level of fossilisation indicates the animal bones are 1,000 to 5,000 years old, palaeobiodiversity expert Kelum Manamendra-arachchie said.

“Some of these bones could be older,” he added. With time, the organic materials inside bones are replaced by mineral substances and experts can estimate their age by observing the extent of this fossilisation process.

Fossilisation only happens in rare cases. Animal carcasses are usually eaten or bacteria can rots them away before fossilisation can occur.

Fossils are found when animals die in location where their carcasses – or parts of it – are protected from scavengers and the elements, such as when they are found on the seabed or a river bed and become buried in sand, soil or mud. Rock pools with beds of clayey mud are ideal, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie pointed out.

The bones were found during efforts to find water sources for thirsty animals. Due to the drought, many of the Yala National Park’s waterholes have run dry. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) sent a crew with a backhoe to deepen a rock pool known as Wel-mal-kema in Yala Block I.

These rockpools are the lifeline of wild animals during droughts as many of them have water when other water sources run dry. It is believed animals became trapped in the mud of this rock pool when they came there for drinking water thousands of years ago.

Through analysis of the bones, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie is able to surmise that wild buffaloes were plentiful thousands of years ago in Yala. The national park has a population of wild buffaloes but these are mixed with domesticated buffaloes. Mr. Manamendra-arachchie says the base of the hobes are thicker in wild buffaloes and there were many such skulls among the excavated bones.

This Wel-mal-kema is 30 feet long and believed to be 30 ft deep. Only half of it has been excavated and it is possible that there could be much older fossils.

Yala has a number of such rock pools, so there could be many mysteries waiting to be unearthed. The Director-General of the DWC and the Minister for Wildlife has requested the Institute of Archaeology to continue with this study in Yala.

Mr. Manamendra-arachchie said he analysed a similar, but smaller rock pool in 2005 in Thanamalwila from which he collected four truckloads of bones that, he believes clearly accounted for more than 100 elephants, 150 wild buffaloes, 200 spotted deer, 150 wild boar and 50 sambhur deer. Most of them had almost become fossilised. 

Published on SundayTimes on 02.10.2016


Students investigating the bones

Protect Sri Lanka’s Jurassic Park

July 25, 2013
Experts urge action to preserve our fossil biodiversity – by Malaka Rodrigo

Millions of years ago, lions, tigers, rhinos, hippos and, perhaps, even dinosaurs, roamed our land, but unlike man-made archaeological artifacts, sites where fossils are buried do not get enough protection, experts have lamented. They expressed their concern at the recently-concluded Archaeological Congress of Sri Lanka where the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Secretariat handed over a proposal to the Archaeology Department on the need to amend the Archaeological Act to protect fossil deposits of Sri Lanka.

Fossils found in Sri Lanka: From left, a part of a fossilised Nilssonia Fissa plant belong to the Jurassic era, Fossilied Conus, a species belonging to the Miocene period and a fossilised tooth of an animal that lived in the Pleistocene era.

The congress was told that millions of years old fossil deposits belonging to the Jurassic, Miocene and Pleistocene periods had been unearthed at Tabbowa in the Puttalam district and other places by archaeologists, but many of these sites were left unprotected and vulnerable to the elements.

The experts said that just as much the way steps were being taken to protect archaeological sites from criminals, millions of years old nature’s creations should be protected before they got lost without anybody’s knowledge.

According to Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi, one of the few experts involved in palaeobiology and palaebiodiversity or the study of fossilised animals and plants, the Tabbowa Jurassic fossil deposits are of the animals that lived some 213 million to 144 million years ago. They had remained preserved in mud and silt stones underground while one deposit was found on the surface of the earth near the Tabbowa tank.

He pointed out that deposits found on the surface should be protected particularly as they were vulnerable to the elements. They included fossilised plants such as conifers, cycade and ferns belonging to the Jurassic era – the period during which dinosaurs roamed the earth.

“So if there were plants from the Jurassic era, there is a big possibility that dinosaurs too roamed this land millions of years ago,” the palaeobiologist said. “Therefore, these fossils need to be protected,”Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi said. Fossils that belong to the Miocene period 25 million years ago are also found in Sri Lanka. Jaffna, the North Western and South Eastern regions are known to be containing Miocene deposits. Fossilised remains of several marine species belonging to this era have been found in the Aruwakkalu areas in Puttalam during excavation for lime for cement production.

Jaffna’s limestone rich areas also contain Miocene fossil deposits. These fossils range from gastropod mollusks to fossils of ancient turtles, sharks, dolphins and even whales.  However, the most interesting fossils from Sri Lanka belong to the Pleistocene era that dates back to 2 million years.

The Pleistocene era is the last ice age and marked the arrival of modern man and other modern biological diversity. Fossilised bones belonging to a lion, a crocodile, two species of rhinoceros, a hippopotamus, a gaur, a tiger, a wild boar, a bull, a wild buffalo, a deer have been found in various parts of Sri Lanka,

The remains of a species, a close relative of the modern elephant, have been found in gem pits in Ratnapura and they are internationally knowsn as ‘Ratnapura Fauna’.  “Ratnapura is surrounded by mountains. So the animals that died millions of years ago must have been washed into this area, remain buried under mud and got fossilised,” Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi said explaining why there were high incidences of fossils discovery in the Ratnapura area.

A hippo lived in SL

An extinct Hippo lived in Sri Lanka (c) Kelum Manamendra-Arachchie

“These fossils have been preserved in this alluvial plain which is a landform created by the deposition of sediment over a long period by one or more rivers coming from highland regions. There could be animals that lived in other areas too and their bodies had washed into the ocean over a long period of time or decayed owing to the influence of natural elements,” the palaeobiodiversity expert said.
All living beings have scientific names and even these fossilised animals that lived millions of years ago have been given interesting names.

Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi explained the process of scientifically classifying a fossilised animal. Usually the fossilised bone or the part of it is first compared with a living animal. If a match cannot be found, then it is compared with similar fossils found from the region. If no match is found, then the fossil is considered to be a new species and is given a scientific name. The pioneer of this field is P.E.P. Deraniyagala. His effort has made Sri Lanka an internationally important destination for the search of missing links of biodiversity.

4 - a Rhino extinct from

A Rhino lived millions of years ago (c) Kelum Manamendra-Arachchie


Fossils are evidence of past life. This broad definition includes standard shells, bones, petrified wood, and leaves. However, there are many more things that can become fossils: footprints, pollen, feeding traces, worm burrows, even fossilsed faeces.

The study of ancient biological diversity is known as paleobiodiversity (pura jaivavividathwaya in Sinhala). The word paleobiodiversity itself is a tongue twister and a new word for our vocabulary. The Biodiversity Secretariat that operates under Department of Environment has been doing a commendable work in popularising paleobiodiversity. It recently organised a public lecture by Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi.

Published on SundayTimes on 21.07.2013