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The biggest gath­er­ing of pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur palaeon­tol­o­gists in South­ern Africa will take place this com­ing week­end (1114 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.