First African Fossils of Four-legged Vertebrates Discovered

First African Fossils of Four-legged Vertebrates Discovered

It remains to be seen what else scientists are going to discover about early land life, following this reveal.

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.

The possibilities are now broader than ever regarding the evolution of the first land animals. The early tetrapods originated from the fishes at the time of the Devonian period.

As they evolved, tetrapods developed a vertebral column and pelvic girdle that could support their bodies on land.

Both the amphibians reportedly were classified in the category of early tetrapods, which is a group that encompasses all the terrestrial vertebrates. They lived at the tropics and also within the Antarctic circle. In fact, one of the species was identified exclusively from a shoulder girdle bone.

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.

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.

"Work on South African paleosciences is of crucial national and worldwide importance, because it provides proof of our shared human origins, which are the mutual roots that bind all people within a common humanity", she said. It was thought that in Laurissa, in the paleotropics, tetrapods evolved because that's where their fossils were found. The only fossil found of these amphibian tetrapods was a jaw and footprints in eastern Australia.

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

Previously drawn conclusions stated that these amphibians moved out from the water on to the land through tropical regions until finally ending in Laurussia. Hence, subsequent studies about their evolution to become land species have only factored in the influence of tropical conditions.

"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, based at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown as part of the South African Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, centered at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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