Old bones take Madiba’s name

[Image] The birthday of former president Nelson Mandela was celebrated in hundreds of ways in South Africa and abroad.
(Image: Janine Erasmus)

[Image] Tiny fossilised bones from the woodpecker Australopicus nelsonmandelai are in safe keeping in the South African Museum in Cape Town.
(Image: Albrecht Manegold)

[Image] Excavations at the West Coast Fossil Park have already yielded over 200 species.
(Image: West Coast Fossil Park)

Dr Albrecht Manegold
  Ornithology section, Senckenberg
  +31 620 987 179

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The global scientific community was not left out of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday celebrations on 18 July – scientists have now named an ancient woodpecker after him.

South African fossils have been in the news of late, with the announcement in July of another significant find of bones of the early human species Australopithecus sediba. The bones are thought to belong to a partial skeleton named Karabo, discovered at the Cradle of Humankind in 2010 by a team from the University of the Witwatersrand.

“This discovery will almost certainly make Karabo the most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered,” said Wits palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, who headed the research team.

But the ancient little bird, known as Australopicus nelsonmandelai, tops even those old bones, as it’s the oldest of its kind ever found in Africa and dates back to more than five million years. It lived during the Pliocene era, which extended from about 5.3-million years to 2.6-million years ago.

Scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt made the announcement the day before Mandela celebrated his birthday.

They documented their discovery in the June issue of the journal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, in an article titled Biogeographic and paleoenvironmental implications of a new woodpecker species (Aves, Picidae) from the early Pliocene of South Africa.

Senckenberg ornithologist Albrecht Manegold, one of the article’s co-authors, said in a statement that the team had decided to name the new species after the Nobel Peace laureate, as a birthday gift to him from the scientific community.

The other author is Antoine Louchart, a French palaeontologist who is associated with Lyon University as well as the Department of Cenozoic Palaeontology at Iziko Museums in Cape Town.

Mandela has already lent his name to a South African species of trapdoor spider and several types of flowers, including a species of king protea – South Africa’s national flower – as well as an apartment in the popular British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, and a type of sea slug, among many other objects.

Prehistoric treasure trove

The woodpecker was unearthed in the Varswater Formation at Langebaanweg, part of South Africa’s West Coast Fossil Park, located about 150km northwest of Cape Town. This prehistoric treasure trove was discovered through mining activities, which stopped in 1993, and the land is now mined for fossils rather than minerals.

The park contains many well-preserved examples of animals that roamed the land about five million years ago and with the fossils of more than 200 species already on record – over 60 of them birds – it is described as possibly the most diverse collection of five million year-old fossils on earth.

While it is a true woodpecker, A. nelsonmandelai is said to be distinct from the three types of true woodpecker found in sub-Saharan Africa today – specifically, those belonging to the genera of Campethera-Geocolaptes, Dendropicos, and Dendrocopos. Rather, it’s more closely related to birds belonging to the genera Celeus and Dryocopus, which occur in Eurasia and Central and South America.

The European bird, wrote the team, could have become stranded in Africa because of environmental changes in the Miocene era, which is set before the Pliocene. The sub-Saharan woodpeckers colonised the continent during this period, but evidence of the unrelated woodpecker appearing at the same time came as a surprise to the team.

The presence of this tree-dwelling woodpecker is also an indication that riverine forests existed in the area, which is now covered mainly by shrub-like fynbos, during the Pliocene.

“Birds are particularly well suited for the reconstruction of environmental conditions of the past,” said Manegold.

The team found a number of bones, including ulnae and carpometacarpi from the wing, tarsometatarsi from the lower leg, and part of a coracoid, which is found in the greater shoulder assembly.

The tiny remains are currently in safe keeping at the Iziko South African Museum.