Scientist discover a second ancient lungfish

Lungfish
© iStock/CoreyFord

A second ancient lungfish has been discovered, adding another piece to the jigsaw of evolving aquatic life forms more that 400m years ago.

The newly discovered lungfish genus (Isityumzi mlomomde) was found about 10,000km from a previous species described in Morocco, baffling scientist because it existed in a polar environment.

Flinders University researcher Dr Alice Clement said that the “scrappy” fossil remains include tooth plates and scales. The remains were found in the Famennian Witoort Formation off the western cape of South Africa.

“This lungfish material is significant for a number of reasons,” Dr Clement says.

“Firstly, it represents the only Late Devonian lungfish known from Western Gondwana (when South America and Africa were one continent). During this period, about 372-359 million years ago, South Africa was situated next to the South Pole,” she says.

“Secondly, the new taxa from the Waterloo Farm Formation seems to have lived in a thriving ecosystem, indicating this region was not as cold as the polar regions of today.”

Dr Clement says the animal would still have been subjected to long winter darkness, very different to the freshwater habitats that lungfish exist in today. There are only six known species of lungfish living only in Africa, South America and Australia.

Isityumzi mlomomde can be translated to “a long-mouthed device for crushing” in isiXhosa, one of the ten common languages spoken in South Africa.

Almost 100 kinds of primitive lungfish evolved from the early Devonian period, which occurred over 410m years ago. Over 25 of which originated in Australia and other are believed to have lived in temperate tropical and subtropical waters of China and Morocco.

Lungfish are a group of fish related to all tetrapods, all terrestrial vertebrates including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

“In this way, a lungfish is more closely related to humans than it is to a goldfish!” says Dr Clement, who has been involved in naming three other new ancient lungfish.

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