African fossils rewrite origins of life

Not so fishy: Africa's first ever fish-with-legs discovered

This continent was nearly entirely within the Devonian tropics, and all the tetrapod remains came from the tropical region.

In a new study, scientists have discovered that the fossilized remains of the two amphibians which have lived in the early Devonian Period.

The two newly discovered species are named Tutusius and Umzantsia. Both were found in black shale at the Waterloo Farm roadcut, which was exposed during controlled explosions along the N2 highway between Grahamstown and the Fish River in 2016. These amphibians were shaped like fish with legs and are believed to have been among the first to have shifted from water to land.

The Minister added that it also provided answers as to what occurred before humans existed, including the evolution of plant and animal life, noting that this latest discovery placed South Africa at the forefront of the study of the evolution of land-living vertebrate animals, including the ancestry of all the wildlife in the country's game parks.

Devonian tetrapods are being touted as the ancestors of all vertebrates, being the amphibious, aquatic tetrapods that first colonized the land. As first scientifically established, their evolution takes place in warm tropical places.

At that time, what is now South Africa was in the Antarctic Circle. Hundreds of millions of years ago-back when Africa was a chunk of the Gondwana supercontinent-these early pioneers would have lived in the Antarctic circle. Tutusius is identified by a single bone from the shoulder girdle. The species was estimated to be about 3 feet long. It was named in honor of South African Anglican cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu.

It seems that the Umzantsia was about 28 inches long, and it had a long lower jaw with very small but pointed teeth. It was thought that in Laurissa, in the paleotropics, tetrapods evolved because that's where their fossils were found.

At the time, Africa was part of the vast continent of Gondwana, made up of what are now South America, Australia, Antarctica, India and Madagascar. Because Australia was the northernmost part of Gondwana, extending into the tropics, an assumption developed that tetrapods evolved in the tropics, most likely in Laurussia.

The site has yielded many other fossils that offer clues about the environment inhabited by the tetrapods, said Gess.

Their discovery reveals that "tetrapods were not exclusively tropical", says the paleontologist, which means that they originated anywhere in the world and spread out wherever they found new land to conquer.

The real importance of Tutusius and Umzantsia lies in where they were found, he said.

"Whereas all previously found Devonian tetrapods came from localities which were in tropical regions during the Devonian‚ these specimens lived within the Antarctic circle‚" explains lead author‚ Dr Robert Gess of the Albany Museum in Grahamstown‚ and co-author Professor Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden.

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