Published: Tue, June 12, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

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

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

Tutusius and Umzantsia are the oldest known four-legged vertebrates in Africa.

Meanwhile, Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India were part of a supercontinent called Gondwana during the Devonian period, but nearly no fossil evidence of tetrapods have been found in this expansive area.

Tutusius is represented by a single bone from the shoulder girdle‚ whereas Umzantsia is known from a greater number of bones‚ but they both appear similar to previously known Devonian tetrapods. The first tetrapods evolved from fish during the Devonian.

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.

Scientists have discovered fossils from two new species of the world's earliest land-walking vertebrates in the Eastern Cape - suggesting these ancient four-legged creatures did not just inhabit the warm waters of the tropics but lived in the Antarctic Circle too.

"Whereas all previously found Devonian tetrapods came from localities which were in tropical regions, these specific specimens lived within the Antarctic circle", Gess said at the launch. 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.

The Waterloo Farm fossil site was revealed in 1985 after controlled rock-cutting by the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) along the N2 highway south of Grahamstown.

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

However, fossils of both Tutusius and Umzantsia were found to have come from the southernmost part of Gondwana. Most were discovered in what was once Laurussia, which broke into North America, Greenland and Europe.

Scientists have found the fossils of Africa's oldest four-legged vertebrates, a odd pair of Devonian tetrapods that lived within the Antarctic Circle. 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 conditions in Devonian tropical lakes and estuaries therefore seemed to hold the key to understanding the causes of this pivotal macroevolutionary transition.

However, a remarkable new finding shows that tetrapods were widespread, and even inhabited the Antarctic Circle. We now know that tetrapods occurred throughout the world by the Late Devonian and that their evolution and terrestrialisation could realistically have occurred anywhere.

The evolution of tetrapods from fish during the Devonian period was a major turning point in our ancestry‚ and all research on that turning point has up until now‚ hinged on the fact that this happened (or so we thought) between 30 degrees north and south of the equator.

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