The excavation of a new road in South Africa's Eastern Cape has unearthed a treasure trove of Devonian fossils, many from species never seen before. The South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) considers the find so valuable they are not only protecting the discoveries, but contemplating a heritage site for tourists.
The N2, one of South Africa's major highways, is being upgraded between Grahamstown and Peddie. In making a new cutting, SANRAL workers came across invertebrate and plant fossils in the Witpoort Formation.
Researchers from Rhodes University and the Albany Museum, both located in Grahamstown, were called out to assess the site and concluded the deposit is 360 million yeas old, laid down towards the end of the Devonian period.
Dr. Robert Gess of the Albany Museum said the specimens lived at the mouth of a river just 15 degrees from the South Pole. Making the discovery even more valuable, the site lies just a few kilometers from the rich Devonian deposits at Waterloo Farm, yet hosts a very distinct ecosystem.
"The discovery is significant as paleontological research and scholarship on marine ecosystems of the Devonian period was primarily anchored in the fossil discoveries of Waterloo Farm," Gess said in a statement. "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."
Many of the plants found at the site are seaweeds, but other discoveries include the oldest trees known from Sub-Saharan Africa. One previously known species is the important tree Archaeopteris notosaria; a specimen from the new site represents the best-preserved example known.
"We found invertebrates which were living in the water and plants that were... living along the banks of the water and preserved in the mud. With only a single exception all the species are new species," Gess told the South African Broadcasting Association.
Along with the plants, the site preserves bivalves very different from those found at Waterloo farm. "Linguloid brachiopods were invertebrates that lived in burrows and had a long fleshy foot. When found without other types of marine invertebrates they indicate a marine environment with some fresh water input. They have never before been found in this age strata," Gess said.
Image in text: Dr. Gess at the site of the deposit
Linguloid brachiopods with a lycopod stem that washed into the river. SANRAL
Research budgets for science in South Africa are stretched thin, but Gess said that SANRAL has played an important part in discovering and preserving several fossil sites, giving palaeontologists an excellent opportunity to study them. "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," Gess said.
SANRAL are working on creating a rest area along the roadway for visitors to stop and learn about the fossils and their historical value.