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Fossil Species and Evolution: Earliest Known Coelacanth Found In Africa

Sep 22, 2015 12:16 PM EDT
Africa’s earliest known coelacanth was recently discovered by researchers from the University of Witwatersrand. This new species is dated to be about 360 million years old.
(Photo : Wits University)

Africa's earliest known coelacanth was recently discovered by researchers from the University of Witwatersrand. The new fossil species, identified as Serenichthys kowiensis, is approximately 360 million years old and was found near Grahamstown, in South Africa's Eastern Cape.

"Remarkably, all of the delicate whole fish impressions represent juveniles. This suggests that Serenichthys was using a shallow, waterweed-filled embayment of the estuary as a nursery, as many fish do today," Dr. Robert Gess, a paleontologist from Wits University's Evolutionary Studies Institute, said in a news release.

During excavation, more than 30 complete specimens of the new fossil species were collected from the Late Devonian aged Waterloo Farm locality. The specimens were found compacted in black shales and some were very well-preserved. Previously, the earliest known coelacanth species was dated around 300 million years old, and was excavated from the Mazon Creek beds of Illinois in the U.S., Gess explained in the release.

"This glimpse into the early life history of ancient coelacanths raises further questions about the life history of the modern coelacanth, Latimeria, which is known to bear live young, but whether they, too, are clustered in nurseries remains unknown," Professor Michael Coates, from the University of Chicago, said in the release.

When this fossil species existed, Africa was part of Gondwana and rocks of the Warterloo Farm were forming along the shores of the semi-enclosed Agulhas Sea. Coelacanths are believed to have arisen during the Devonian period, roughly 420 million years ago.

"According to our evolutionary analysis (conducted by Gess and Coates), it is the Devonian species that most closely resembles the line leading to modern coelacanths," Gess said.

Their findings, recently published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, shed light on the species' evolution.

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