Wednesday, 15 August, 2018

First African Fossils of Four-legged Vertebrates Discovered

Two newly discovered early amphibians Tutusius and Umzantsia that lived about 360 million years ago during the Devonian Period in South Africa. — Handout via Reuters Not so fishy: Africa's first ever fish-with-legs discovered
Cary Marshall | 12 June, 2018, 03:25

Found at Waterloo Farm near a place known as Grahamstown in South Africa, the fossilized remains of the two amphibians, namely Umzantsia amazana and Tutusius umlambo have forced the researchers to restudy the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates.

The much larger southern supercontinent, Gondwana, which incorporated present-day Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India, has yielded nearly no Devonian tetrapods, with only an isolated jaw and footprints, being found in eastern Australia.

Both of the amphibians were reportedly are in the category of early tetrapods, and they are in the groups which encompass all the terrestrial vertebrates.

"Alive, they would have resembled a cross between a crocodile and a fish, with a crocodile-like head, stubby legs and a tail with a fish-like fin", Gess explained, adding that their evolution was the result of an adaptation of living in shallow lakes and lagoons.

The remarkable fossil remains suggest that the ancestors of modern vertebrates within the Antarctic circle first appeared 360 million years ago.

"So we now know that tetrapods, by the end of the Devonian, lived all over the world, from the tropics to the Antarctic circle", said paleontologist Robert Gess "So it's possible that they originated anywhere and that they could have moved onto land anywhere".

Gess's research was funded by the University of the Witwatersrand's Centre for Excellence in Palaeosciences and the Millennium Trust. The Tutsis said to be named after the Desmond Tutu and the Human Rights activist and South African Anglican Cleric usually measured about one meter in length.

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The Farm locality is a roadcut that exposed dark grey mudstones rich with Devonian fossils of animals and plants.

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.

During the Devonian period, North America, Greenland, and Europe formed a single landmass called Laurissa. This was found in Eastern Australia which was on the extreme northern tropical coast of Gondwana.

Scientists have found the fossils of Africa's oldest four-legged vertebrates, a odd pair of Devonian tetrapods that lived within the Antarctic Circle. Attempts to understand the causes of these major macroevolutionary steps therefore focussed on conditions prevalent in tropical water bodies. The creatures lived in what was then the southernmost part of the super-continent Gondwanaland, which extended 70% south to within the Antarctic Circle and later broke up into several continents, including Africa. Abundant plant fossils show that forests grew nearby, so it wasn't frozen, but it was definitely not tropical and during winter it will have experienced months of complete darkness.

The possibilities are now broader than ever regarding the evolution of the first land animals.

"There is probably not another country that so fully documents the long and dramatic evolutionary history of our own lineage", Gess said.

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