The South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) announced that the fossils were
discovered in rock debris during construction work on the Eastern Cape N2 highway,
close to Grahamstown.
Uncovered during controlled rock cutting explosions, the find, including preserved plant fossils and a number of new invertebrates, has now been quickly excavated for further analysis, according to Sanral environmental manager Mpati Makoa.
“To advance scientific discourse and original research contributions of South African palaeontology and heritage scholars, we made provision in the environmental
management programme for specialist examination and excavation of rock debris,”
Makoa told News24.
The specimens were examined by palaeontologist Dr Robert Gess of Grahamstown’s Albany Museum, an environmental consultant for Sanral. Gess called the discovery “substantial” because many of the species “have not yet been documented by palaeontologists”.
The fossils also include examples of marine life dating back 360-million years, a period known as the Devonian era, when South Africa – and Africa – was joined with South America, Australia and Antarctica to form the Gondwana supercontinent.
Gess said the plant and invertebrate fossil discoveries were from an ancient river mouth ecosystem. This environment made them distinct from fossil specimens discovered in 2013 at the nearby closed lagoon ecosystem of Waterloo Farm.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The N2 discoveries include a shrub sized Iridopterid plant, a number of lycopods and Zosterophylopsid plants. More significant is the complete specimen of an Archaeopteris notosaria tree was also collected, which Gess calls “the best preserved fertile material of this ancient tree” on record.
Among the newly discovered marine invertebrate fossils is a new species of bivalve or mud clams. It is vastly different from those previously discovered at Waterloo Farm, a mere 20 kilometres away, and may provide some answers about the prehistory of the area.
Gess said cooperation between the roads agency and the palaeontology community has a long history in uncovering fossil-rich areas.
Infrastructure development since the late 1980s had significantly shaped South African palaeontology research and studies, he said. This has “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”.
The new find, and previous discoveries at Waterloo Farm, make the area an important global palaeontological hub.
Steven Robertson, Sanral’s project manager on the N2 Grahamstown to Fish River, said preservation and public education were now a priority. “When we first met Dr Gess and he explained significant fossil finds, we thought how can we best preserve and allow public access to this to ensure it becomes general knowledge of what was in this area millions and millions of years ago?” he said
To promote the discoveries and the region in general, Sanral is planning to incorporate an observation area in the completion of the N2 project.
The roads agency, Robertson said, is converting the road design to accommodate a rest area that can be used as a picnic area. “We will be including information boards and displays on the significance of the fossils, their age how they fit into the evolutionary history of earth.”