The return of the coelacanth

21 September 2015 - 02:02 By Tanya Farber

More than 30 specimens of Africa's earliest coelacanth have been found in a 360-million-year-old fossil estuary near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. All the specimens found are of juveniles, which means the species was using the estuary as a nursery. Dr Robert Gess, who analysed the specimens of the new fossil species Serenichthys kowiensis while completing his PhD at Wits University, said: "It is the earliest record we have of the breeding behaviour of coelacanths. Estuaries are today used by fish in exactly the same way."Describing the experience of the fieldwork, he said: "You sit there knowing that each rock has limitless potential. The majority of them contain nothing and then you split one that has a beautifully preserved coelacanth inside and it is exceptionally exciting. It is like turning the pages of a book."Gess says the extreme age of the fossils can be put into context by considering that the earliest hominid fossils date back five million years and non-bird dinosaurs died out 60 million years ago. According to scientists at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the coelacanth's evolutionary relationships "are a matter of controversy . in large part owing to the many unusual characters" found in the group, so scientists "disagree on the exact placement of the coelacanth in the evolutionary history of vertebrates".Professor Michael Coates of the University of Chicago, who has helped describe the new species in an article published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society of London, said: "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."The fossils, which came from black shales originally disturbed by roadworks, were found less than 100km from the major find of 1938, when a living coelacanth was discovered after scientists believed they had become extinct 66 million years prior.The new fossils have been deposited in the palaeontological collection of the Albany Natural History Museum, in Grahamstown.

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