FOS­SIL TREA­SURE TROVE FOUND IN SOUTH AFRICA

Road­works on N2 high­way un­cover trea­sure trove of ancient fos­sils

The Witness - Wheels - - FRONT PAGE - AHMED AREFF

GRA­HAM­STOWN — A huge trea­sure trove of fos­sils, in­clud­ing some species that have not been doc­u­mented by sci­en­tists be­fore, has been dis­cov­ered dur­ing con­struc­tion work on the N2 high­way near Gra­ham­stown.

“A num­ber of new in­ver­te­brates, as well as ex­cel­lently pre­served plant fos­sils of the Devo­nian era, have been ex­ca­vated and dis­cov­ered in rock de­bris of the Wit­poort For­ma­tion along the N2 be­tween Gra­ham­stown and Fish River,” SA Na­tional Roads Agency Lim­ited (San­ral) en­vi­ron­men­tal man­ager Mpati Makoa an­nounced yes­ter­day.

The trove was dis­cov­ered dur­ing “con­trolled rock cut­ting ex­plo­sions”.

Renowned palaeon­tol­o­gist Dr Robert Gess, who does con­sult­ing for San­ral, said the dis­cov­ery was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause “many species have not yet been doc­u­mented by palaeon­tol­o­gists”.

The Devo­nian era lasted from about 416 mil­lion years to 354 mil­lion years ago, and is of­ten re­ferred to as the “Age of Fishes” be­cause of the va­ri­eties of fish that were spawned dur­ing that time.

Two large land masses at that time were the con­ti­nent of Eu­ramer­ica — which in­cluded what we now know as North Amer­ica and Europe — and Gond­wana, which was made up of South Amer­ica, Africa, Antarctica, In­dia and Aus­tralia.

The fos­silised re­mains found dur­ing the road­works are of life in a marine coast­line en­vi­ron­ment when South Africa was part of Gond­wana — nearly 360 mil­lion years ago.

“To ad­vance sci­en­tific dis­course and orig­i­nal re­search con­tri­bu­tions of South African palaeon­tol­ogy and her­itage schol­ars, we made pro­vi­sion in the en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment pro­gramme for spe­cial­ist ex­am­i­na­tion and ex­ca­va­tion of rock de­bris,” Makoa said.

Ac­cord­ing to Gess, the plant and in­ver­te­brate fos­sil dis­cov­er­ies are from ancient open river mouth ecosys­tems.

“It dif­fers from the fos­sil dis­cov­er­ies of the closed la­goon ecosys­tem of Water­loo Farm, an im­por­tant South African palaeon­to­log­i­cal her­itage site of the late Devo­nian pe­riod which is 20 km away from the cur­rent ex­ca­va­tion site where San­ral is work­ing,” he said.

“The dis­cov­ery is sig­nif­i­cant as palaeon­to­log­i­cal re­search and schol­ar­ship on marine ecosys­tems of the Devo­nian pe­riod was pri­mar­ily an­chored in the fos­sil dis­cov­er­ies of Water­loo Farm. Now, we are able to trace a much broader pic­ture of life along an ancient coast­line through the dis­cov­ery of new plant and in­ver­te­brate species.”

He said the re­mains of a shrub-sized “Iri­dopterid plant” were col­lected, as well as a num­ber of “ly­copods” and “Zos­tero phy­lop­sid plants”.

Com­plete spec­i­mens of the fronds of the Ar­chaeopteris no­to­saria tree was also col­lected. Gess said this is the “best pre­served fer­tile ma­te­rial of this ancient tree” on record.

Gess and his team also dis­cov­ered new marine in­ver­te­brate fos­sils.

“We are busy de­scrib­ing a new species of bi­valve or mud clams from Water­loo Farm. How­ever, at the new out­crops we are deal­ing with an en­tirely dif­fer­ent bi­valve that has never be­fore been found.”

Gess said road­works in South Africa dur­ing 1985, 1999, 2008 and in 2016 have sig­nif­i­cantly shaped South African palaeon­tol­ogy re­search and stud­ies.

“They have en­abled dis­cov­ery of the clues to vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing we know about high latitude lat­est Devo­nian life, not just in South Africa, but in the world,” he said.

“Twenty late Devo­nian fish species would never be­fore have been dis­cov­ered had it not been for road­works at Water­loo Farm.”

He said be­tween 20 and 30 types of fos­sil land plants, wa­ter­weeds and sea­weeds have been col­lected from the rocks re­trieved from road­works at Water­loo Farm, and are be­ing de­scribed by sci­en­tists. Some of the re­mains from Water­loo Farm in­clude frag­ments of scor­pi­ons, which rep­re­sent the ear­li­est known re­mains of land-liv­ing crea­tures from the ancient su­per­con­ti­nent of Gond­wana.

San­ral is now plan­ning to cre­ate a “rest and ob­ser­va­tion” area for road users near the site. “When we first met Dr Gess and he ex­plained sig­nif­i­cant fos­sil finds, we thought how can we best pre­serve and al­low pub­lic ac­cess to this to en­sure it be­comes gen­eral knowl­edge of what was in this area mil­lions and mil­lions of years ago?” said Steven Robert­son, San­ral’s project man­ager on the N2 Gra­ham­stown to Fish River.

“So, we are con­vert­ing the road de­sign to ac­com­mo­date a rest area that can be used as a pic­nic area, and we will be in­clud­ing in­for­ma­tion boards and dis­plays on the sig­nif­i­cance of the fos­sils, their age how they fit into the evo­lu­tion­ary his­tory of Earth.”

PHOTO: SAN­RAL

Dr Robert Gess with the 360 mil­lion-year-old in­ver­te­brate and plant fos­sils dis­cov­ered out­side Gra­ham­stown, Eastern Cape, along the N2 dur­ing rock blast­ing for a new por­tion of the high­way.

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