Rare fossils discovered entombed in each other’s arms

2013-06-25 00:00

IN what has been described as a world first, scientists led by Professor Bruce Rubidge from the University of the Witwatersrand have discovered the fossils of two extremely rare mammals that lived some 250 million years ago.

“This is an unbelievably rare discovery. To find two different animals, a Thrinaxodon, the predecessor of modern mammals, and the amphibious Broomistega in the same hole, has not happened before,” said Rubidge, director of the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Last year it was decided to scan one of the old fossils shelved in the university’s storage rooms, using the new Synchrotron scanning method that was developed in France.

The fossils were discovered years ago in the Karoo by Professor James Kitching, one of the founding members of the paleontology department at Wits.

He said they knew there was something in the rock because bones were visible, but never dreamed that two animals were in the fossilised hole dating to 250 million years ago.

Rubidge said they were initially not impressed by the quality of the photos composed by the synchronised scanner.

“It was when we looked at the first photos that we saw the second set of teeth.”

He said they knew quite a lot about Thrinaxodon, but only three Broomistega skulls have been discovered. “Here we have a complete skeleton, as never before seen,” he said.

The Karoo, where the fossils were found, was a semi-desert with isolated pans of water at the time. Scientists suspect that the Thrinaxodon, which lived in holes, was hibernating to survive a scarcity of food during the dry season, when the Broomistega sheltered in the same hole, possibly due to an unseasonal rain storm.

A mud slide then probably buried the two animals for the next 250 million years.

Rubidge said their first idea was that the two animals had attacked each other, but neither showed injuries.

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