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The biggest gathering of professional and amateur palaeontologists in Southern Africa will take place this coming weekend (11-14 July 2014) at Wits University, when the Palaeontological Society of Southern Africa (PSSA) converges for its 18th biennial conference.

The highlight of the four-day meeting is a special public lecture to be presented by the esteemed NASA scientist, Dr Kevin Hand, and presided over by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, in the Wits Great Hall at 18h00 on 11 July. Hand is a renowned researcher in the field of astrobiology, and his talk is titled Bringing Two Worlds Together: How Earth’s Past and Present Help Us Search for Life on Other Planets.

The conference is also open to the media. For biographies, abstracts and the full programme, visit the Wits website.

The conference attracts some of the greatest minds in palaeontology, and is funded by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) and hosted by the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University – where the new DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences is based.

“More than 100 local and international scientists will participate in this conference that will consist of four special symposia, three focusing on the interplay between organisms and their changing environment throughout Earth’s history, and one focusing on the use of palaeontology in education,” says conference chair Dr Jonah Choiniere, of Wits University.

The plenary talks for the special symposia will be presented by Drs Cindy Looy, Kaye Reed, Tony Lelliott and Doug Erwin.

One of the highlights is a talk on a new interactive digital map that highlights areas of palaeontological sensitivity in South Africa. Since 2008, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) has worked with specialists to produce reports on the known palaeontological heritage of each province in South Africa.

Now this map can be used by developers as an early warning system for potential impacts to significant palaeontological heritage. This presentation is titled Using GIS and the SAHRIS Database to Better Manage the Impact of Development on Palaeontological Heritage, and takes place at the Palaeosciences Building, Braamfontein Campus East, Wits, at 15h00 on Saturday, 12 July.

The first PSSA conference took place at the National Museum, Bloemfontein in July 1979, and in 2012 the latest conference was hosted by the University of Cape Town.

“It is crucial that palaeoscientists with different research areas get together to inform each other of their latest findings. This interconnectedness of this conference stimulates new ideas and collaborations that advance palaeosciences in Southern Africa,” Choiniere adds.