THE South African National Roads Agency’s (SANRAL’s) assistance in rescuing fossiliferous shales from roadworks in the Eastern Cape continues to bear internationally important results.
That’s according to spokesperson Shaanaaz Loggenberg, who said the agency’s involvement with Late Devonian research goes back to 1999 when they assisted renowned South African palaeontologist Dr Robert Gess to rescue 30 tons of fossiliferous shale ahead of roadworks at Waterloo Farm, 2 km south of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape.
All but one of the Priscomyzon specimens in the new study have been recovered by Dr Gess whilst slowly excavating his way through these rocks, which have also provided a huge range of other important fossils, including Africa’s earliest tetrapod remains (published in Science in 2016) and about 20 other types of fish including Africa’s earliest coelacanths from the world’s oldest coelacanth nursery.
The Priscomyzon hatchling specimen was found in 2008 when SANRAL facilitated Dr Gess’ rescue operations at Waterloo Farm during further roadworks.
In 2015 when SANRAL initiated roadworks along the N2 east of Makhanda they again enlisted Dr Gess’ assistance in mitigating heritage loss, resulting in the discovery of further Late Devonian fossil sites 20 km to the east of Waterloo Farm.
This led to a plan to develop a roadside information centre about the local Late Devonian heritage discoveries besides the N2 between Makhanda and Ngqushwa (Peddie).
The latest discoveries come from a horde of fossiliferous shale carefully mined out with their assistance ahead of roadworks at Waterloo Farm to the south of Makhanda in 1999.
The 30 tons of rock was carefully stored in sheds to protect it from the weather and Dr Gess has been meticulously working through it.
The 360-million-year-old shale has been described as the most important fossil containing a deposit of its age in the southern hemisphere and has yielded a unique record of life in an ancient coastal lagoon, from stem tetrapods and diverse fish to delicate waterweeds.
Deposited under oxygen-poor conditions the fine-grained mud sometimes preserved even the most delicate soft tissue, including impressions of skin, cartilage and even eyeballs.
In the prestigious journal, Nature, Dr Gess, who is based at the Albany Museum and Rhodes University in Makhanda, together with colleagues from the University of Chicago, reveals a growth series of fossil lampreys that he has been assembling from the shale, over the last 15 years.
Gess explained that lampreys are intriguing fish, still found today, that (together with Hagfish) are the only surviving fish from before fish had jaws.
The fossils from Makhanda belong to the oldest species of fossil lamprey in the world.
SANRAL advertised a tender last week for phase three of the N2 Makhanda to Fish River Pass road upgrade. It is anticipated that construction will start in the second half of this year and will include the next phase of development of the Devonian heritage node.