Oldest African Coelacanth Found In Eastern Cape

Posted: Sep 22 2015, 3:09am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

Oldest African Coelacanth Found in Eastern Cape
Serenichthys coelacanth holotype is shown. CREDIT: Wits University
  • Africa's earliest known coelacanth found in 360 million year-old fossil estuary in Eastern Cape.

A prototypical coelacanth of Africa was discovered in the Eastern Cape region of the Dark Continent.

Africa’s earliest known coelacanth fossil has been found off the Eastern Cape. The 360 million year old remains of the creature show that it was the most ancient of amphibious fish. And it was found in Grahamstown.

At least 30 samples of fossils were unearthed from the site. Termed the Serenichthys kowiensis, the fossils of this rare species were found from the Late Devonian Waterloo Farm locality by palaeontologist Dr Robert Gess. He described these samples in collaboration with Professor Michael Coates of the University of Chicago.

Gess did the research whilst he was completing his PhD at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. An article describing the new species was published in the prestigious Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society of London on Monday, 21 August.

Most of the fossils are of young coelacanths. It lived in shallow waters and probably fed on seaweed. The fossils were found in the tons of black shale that were present at the site. The petrified mud composed mostly of the substance from which the impressions of the juvenile coelacanths were taken.

"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," says Gess.

It was probably a nursery of coelacanths. A similar series of fossils from some other creatures were found in Illinois. This view into the early life history of coelacanths shows a vision about the later modern versions of this marine beast. The new forms are able to bear live young. But whether they also form nurseries remains a moot point.

"This earliest known record of a coelacanth nursery foreshadows a much younger counterpart, known from the 300 million year old Mazon Creek beds of Illinois in the United States," says Gess.

"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," explains Coates.

Africa was once part of Gondwana which was a sort of supercontinent. The formation of the site from where the fossils were found was a special case of several incidents colliding with each other.

In the 90s when excavations started in the region, coelacanth remains were discovered and they were a source of great joy and excitement among the paleontologists. However, there was a catch.

The fossils were in such a damaged and fragile state that they could not be reconstituted to look like the original coelacanths. Nevertheless, with the formulation of better methods of recovery, the black shale fossils were painstakingly put together.

Some of the fossils are very intricate in their detailed structure. They show an internal view of the fish that has fascinated so many seekers of lost flora and fauna. The preparation of such infinitely detailed works required microscopic precision.

The Devonian samples later on evolved into the modern fish that roamed the deep seas off the coast of Africa. The coelacanth has lobed fins that show that its ancestors used to be land dwellers. Somewhere along their journey, they decided to take to the shallow waters. And today, the coelacanth is abiding in the deep blue waters of the oceans of the globe.

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