An ancient four-legged 'fish' has just been discovered, and named after Desmond Tutu

Business Insider SA
Artists impression of Tutusius at Waterloo Farm by Maggie Newman.
  • New fossil finds in South Africa show that “fish” crawled out of the primordial waters in cold climates too.
  • Stem Tetrapods, a cross between fish and land-vertebrates, lived 360-million years ago, and only 13 species have been described.
  • New tetrapod named after Tutu, as it “led the way into the sunshine”

More than 360-million years ago, fish began to crawl out of the oceans in an evolutionary leap. South African scientist Rob Gess has discovered these creatures, known as stem tetrapods, were present in the Antarctic Circle not just the warm tropical waters of the equator. This changes our understanding of the conditions under which life was able to crawl out of the seas and evolve into four-legged land walkers and ultimately humans.

Rob Gess (left) and Per Ahlberg (right) with the cleithrum of Tutusius and an image of a Devonian tetrapod (picture by Steven Lang).

“This shows that tetrapods were not exclusively tropical, and they could have evolved anywhere in the world,” said Gess. Gess and Swedish colleague Per Ahlberg described two new species of tetrapods in scientific journal Science on 7 June, taking the total number of known tetrapod species up to 13. Tutusius and Umzantsia are the oldest known four-legged vertebrates in Africa.

Silhouettes of Devonian tetrapods showning in green the life positions of tetrapod bones recovered from Waterloo Farm.

Gess, who works for the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, discovered the fossils in rock that he saved from road construction in 1999. He has about 100 tonnes of fossil-containing shale rock. “I’ve slowly chiselled through 20 tonnes of that in the last 20 years. I have another 80 tonnes, and I’m almost certain there will be more [discoveries] as we go through the rocks.”

Cleithrum of Umzantsia amazana (scale = 1cm).

The larger of the two new species, Tutusius, is about a metre-long, and is “the more evolved of the two”, said Gess. It was named after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a South African icon who was involved in the fight against Apartheid.

Cleithrum of Tutusius umlambo (scale = 1cm).

“When I was thinking about names for them, it occurred to me that these tetrapods led the way from these rather anoxic swamps out into the sunshine. And it seems to me that in many ways, that was a metaphor for what Desmond Tutu had done.”

Infographic of evolution of the shoulder girdle across the fish to tetrapod transition. Includes the proposed position of the cleithra of Tutusius and Umzantsia.

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