360-million-year-old fossil of new killer fish species found in Africa

Turns out there could be 60 never-before-seen animals buried in the Waterloo Farm in South Africa.
Rupendra Brahambhatt
Painting by Maggie Newman based on research by Rob Gess.
Painting by Maggie Newman based on research by Rob Gess.

Maggie Newman

A team of researchers has been collecting and studying fossils for over three decades in the Waterloo Farm locality of South Africa.

Their latest paper sheds light on a new killer fish species named Hyneria udlezinye, which is now considered the biggest prehistoric bony fish ever discovered in the southern African region. 

H. udlezinye is believed to have existed around 360 million years ago during the Devonian period (part of the Paleozoic era ranging from 419.2 million years to 358.9 million years ago). It belongs to an extinct group of lobe-finned fish called the tristichopterids (tristichopteridae).  

One of the researchers and a professor in organismal biology at Uppsala University in Sweden, Per Ahlberg, told IE, “These fishes (so-called ’tristichopterids’) are closely related to those that evolved into the first tetrapods or land vertebrates.” 

He further added, “Sometime during the early part of the Devonian period, an evolving fish lineage split into two branches, one leading to the first tetrapods and the other evolving into monsters like Hyneria.”

The killer fish is from Gondwana

360-million-year-old fossil of new killer fish species found in Africa
Prof. Rob W. Gess with fossils of the fish.

Adult H. udlezinye was a three-meter-long freshwater fish that mainly fed on the earliest known aquatic four-legged animals of Africa, Tutusius and Umzantsia, which are also the indirect ancestors of humans. However, what’s more interesting is the geography that this predatory fish inhabited.

At the time when Hyneria lived, the continents were not the same as today. Europe and North America together formed a moderately large continent called Euramerica, and the Southern Hemisphere was covered by a much larger continent called Gondwana, which incorporated present-day South America, Africa, Antarctica, India, Madagascar, and Australia.

According to the researchers, Gondwana was the place where the giant tristichopterids first originated. Previously, due to some exceptions such as H. lindae that were known to have arisen from North America, it was believed that Hyneria perhaps first appeared in Euramerica and then migrated to Gondwana.

“The discovery of a closely related species, Hyneria udlezinye, from southern Gondwana strongly supports the idea that these giants all originated in Gondwana. It represents an important missing piece of the puzzle. It is also the only tristichopterid known from polar regions.” Most of the other Gondwanan tristichopterids come from Australia,” said Robert W. Gess, study author and a professor of Paleontology at Rhodes University in South Africa. 

Interestingly, Professor Gess discovered and unearthed the very first remains of H. udlezinye from the Waterloo Farm in the late 1980s, i.e., about 36 years ago. The most recent fossil was excavated in 2022 by one of his Ph.D. students. 

Significance of the ancient fish and the Waterloo Farm 

360-million-year-old fossil of new killer fish species found in Africa
Diagram depicting relationship between H. udlezinye and other animals.

These findings also highlight the significance of Waterloo Farm as it remains the only window into the diversity of fish and tetrapods from the whole of southern Gondwana since this is the only place in the whole of Africa with relevant fossil records.

Interestingly, H. udlezinye is the 26th new animal identified from the fossils discovered in the Waterloo Farm locality. The researchers suggest that there could be a total of 60 unknown organisms buried in the region. 

Moreover, H. udlezinye is also linked to tetrapods, which were ancestral to humans as well. So the information from its remains could help us better understand how geographical factors affected the biology, evolution, and distribution of organisms that existed at a time when many continents were fused together. 

The researchers will continue working on the Waterloo Farm in South Africa to find more new species that are waiting to be discovered.

The paper is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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