Fossils in South Africa Rewrite History of Early Life

Fossils in South Africa Rewrite History of Early Life

However, the discovery of the 360 million years old fossils of Tutusius umlambo and Umzantsia amazana primitive amphibians in Waterloo Farm, near Grahamstown, in South Africa, a region which was at the Arctic circle during the Devonian Period, indicates that first land animals could've emerged from colder regions, too.

Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand and the Albany Museum in Grahamstown in South Africa examined the Devonian Waterloo Farm locality and found tetrapod fossils.

Twelve Devonian tetrapods have previously been described, all of which came from the Devonian tropics, between 30 degrees north and south of the equator. It was during this time that fish first began to evolve into tetrapods, four-legged animals that could walk on land.

They were among the early wave of tetrapods, a group including all land-living vertebrates. As first scientifically established, their evolution takes place in warm tropical places. They lived at the tropics and also within the Antarctic circle.

The new fossils are about 360-million years old and are the first tetrapods found in SA. In fact, one of the species was identified exclusively from a shoulder girdle bone.

Only one Devonian tetrapod jaw came from Gondwana - the supercontinent which incorporated present day Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India. It was named in honor of South African Anglican cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu.

The two fossils belong to two different species of vertebrates that would have probably looked like a cross between a crocodile and a fish, sporting a crocodile-like head and short stubby legs, but retaining a fish-like tail. It was thought that in Laurissa, in the paleotropics, tetrapods evolved because that's where their fossils were found. 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. Umzantsia fossil, on the other hand, was a bit smaller and represented by many bones. Taking this into account, it's highly possible that they originated anywhere in the world. Hence, subsequent studies about their evolution to become land species have only factored in the influence of tropical conditions.

At the same time, "Umzantsia" refers to the southern region where the species was found and "amazana" means "water ripples", pointing to the "very distinctive ornaments on the bone", says the paleontologist.

"Whereas all previously found Devonian tetrapods came from localities which were in tropical regions during the Devonian period, these specimens lived within the Antarctic circle", the article's authors - Gess and fellow palaeontologist from Uppsala University in Sweden, Prof Per Ahlberg - said.

Together with Per Ahlberg, the coauthor of the study, the whole team concluded that while tetrapods occurred in the world by the Late Devonian period, their evolution and migration to land could also have happened elsewhere in the world.

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