SA fossils rewrite early history of life on land

First African Fossils of Four-legged Vertebrates Discovered

The remains were discovered in Africa, Scientists from Rhodes University and Uppsala University have described two new species of four-legged animals that lived on Earth about 360 million years ago, shortly after the planet appeared the representatives of the superclass, writes the Chronicle.info with reference to the Telegraph.

The newfound fossils are the first ones ever to emerge from the south of the Devonian world (not just the south of Africa) and bring up the total of known tetrapod species to 13. The early tetrapods originated from the fishes at the time of the Devonian period.

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, together with South African palaeontologist Dr Rob Gess, on Friday announced the discovery of the first African fossils of Devonian tetrapods, or four-legged vertebrates. As first scientifically established, their evolution takes place in warm tropical places.

Now, with the South African fossils, it was finally known that they have also resided in colder environments.

But these newly-uncovered creatures - one of which will be named after Archbishop Desmond Tutu - evolved out of the water near modern-day Antarctica some 360 million years ago.

"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.

Here's where things get interesting (although a fossil named after Desmond Tutu is pretty hard to top).

Umzantsia was about 70cm with a long, slender lower jaw, apparently armed with small pointed teeth.

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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.

Devonian tetrapod fossils are practically found everywhere in the world. 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.

Most, if not all, of their fossils, were discovered in another ancient supercontinent called Laurussia, which, at present day, are North America, Greenland, and Europe.

"This shows that tetrapods were not exclusively tropical, and they could have evolved anywhere in the world", said Gess. Hence, subsequent studies about their evolution to become land species have only factored in the influence of tropical conditions.

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

Robert Gess, a paleontologist at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, said in a statement, "So we now know that tetrapods, by the end of the Devonian, lived all over the world, from the tropics to the Antarctic Circle".

It was then deduced that all Devonian tetrapods were tropical, with a tropical origin, and that the move onto land probably occurred in tropical environments.

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