New discovery: First African fossils of four-legged vertebrates lived in Antarctic Circle

2018-06-07 20:07

A leading South African palaeontologist and Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane are expected to announce on Friday the groundbreaking discovery of the first African fossils of Devonian tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates).

Dr Robert Gess, a palaeontologist based at the Albany Museum at Rhodes University, and co-author Professor Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden, are expected to announce the discovery of the four-legged vertebrates that lived within the Antarctic circle, 360 million years ago.

The two researchers explained that the evolution of tetrapods from fishes during the Devonian period was a key event in modern humans’ distant ancestry.

"Whereas all previously found Devonian tetrapods came from localities which were in tropical regions during the Devonian, these specimens lived within the Antarctic Circle," the two authors said.

Dr Rob Gess and Prof Per Ahlberg with the cleithrum of Tutusius and an image of a Devonian tetrapod. (Steven Lang)

They said the new-found fossils from the latest Devonian Waterloo Farm locality, near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, had forced a major reassessment of the event. Their findings were published on Thursday in the respected journal Science.

The real importance of the fossils, Tutusius and Umzantsia, lies in where they were found, the researchers say.

The two explained that, if the continents are mapped back to their positions during the Devonian period, almost all the fossils come from the supercontinent, Laurussia, which include modern day North America, Greenland and Europe.

The much larger southern supercontinent, Gondwana - which incorporated present-day Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India - has only yielded an isolated jaw and footprints in Australia.

The two new species are Africa’s earliest known four-legged vertebrates in a remarkable 70-million years.

Full reconstruction of Waterloo Farm, including Tutusius and Umzantsia. (By Maggie Newman)

Gess is South Africa’s principle researcher on the Devonian period’s marginal marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as early vertebrates.

"Deep down inside, I was always hoping that I could find remains of Devonian tetrapods at Waterloo Farm, even though the text books suggested that it wasn’t at all likely," he said.

"I was splitting shale with my student Chris Harris when I found the cleithrum of Tutusius. I just knew that this was what I’d spent years looking for. I went all quiet and then abandoned what I was doing and went to fetch the literature just to double check," explained Gess.

"I’ll never forget that afternoon."

'A significant tetrapod discovery'

Ahlberg said the moment he saw the first pictures sent to him by Gess, he knew Gess had got it right.

"I have spent many years studying the shoulder girdles of the earliest tetrapods and knew that the shape of this particular bone, the cleithrum, is absolutely characteristic," he said.

Silhouettes of Devonian tetrapods showing (in green) the life positions of tetrapod bones recovered from Waterloo Farm. (Supplied)

"When we were finally able to work on the material together in Grahamstown, we quickly discovered even more bones, turning this into one of the most significant tetrapod discoveries of recent decades. I am thrilled to have been invited onto this project," Ahlberg said.

Gess and Kubayi-Ngubane are expected to publicly announce the findings at Wits University’s Origins Centre on Friday afternoon.

Gess is a member of the department of science and technology and the national research foundation’s centre of excellence in Palaeosciences, which is based at Wits, and is a hub for groundbreaking research into the fossils and fossil records found in Africa.

He found ancient treasure on the side of the road

When the N2 highway ploughed past Grahamstown in 1985, its path had nothing to do with conservation. Human progress comes at a cost. But human intervention had a fortuitous side effect on this occasion, as the dynamite that made way for the new road exposed a palaeontologist's paradise.

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