Johannesburg - Two years, the Malapa Nature Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind brought us Australopithecus sediba – a previously undiscovered hominid species.
Now, the same site has given scientists their second new species.
His name? Vulpes skinneri, a 2 million-year-old fossilised fox.
The secret is in the teeth, the scientists report in an article published in the journal Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa.
Scientists first found skinneri’s bones in late 2009, buried for years in one of the blocks removed from the Malapa site. But it was a mandible – lower jaw – that held the clue to the new species.i
“One tooth was missing,” said Wits University’s Dr Brian Kuhn. “Where every other canid – wolves, jackals, domestic dogs and other foxes – has this tooth, there was a gap.”
The tooth hadn’t worn down or broken off. It simply wasn’t there at all.
Kuhn noticed the missing tooth when the jawbone was first found, but it was only after showing photos to his fellow researchers that the team realised what they had found.
“That’s a very unique trait,” said Kuhn. “That alone told us this was something different. It doesn’t match any modern or fossil foxes.”
If it were alive today, skinneri would look something like the Cape fox, about as long as a ruler and no heavier than 5kg. The jawbone itself is no bigger than the palm of a person’s hand.
Very little is known about the evolution of Africa’s foxes. Finding any fox fossil on the continent is rare, said Kuhn.
“To see a potential ancestral form of living foxes is wonderful.”
Vulpes skinneri is named after legendary South African mammologist Professor John Skinner. Born in Joburg, he was director of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute for 26 years. He died in 2011.
The director of the Malapa project, Professor Lee Berger, said: “Malapa continues to reveal this extraordinary record of past life, and as important as the human ancestors are from the site, the site’s contribution to our understanding of the evolution of modern African mammals through wonderful specimens like this fox is of equal import. Who knows what we will find next?” - The Star