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Wits University has cemented its place at the top of the paleontological world, by being the first port of call for Brazilian scientists with a perplexing fossil find.
PALEONTOLOGICAL researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand are setting global benchmarks in their field, with the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research (BPI) pioneering fossil finds in South Africa and setting trends in ground-breaking discoveries about life in the distant past.

An artist’s impression of Tiarajudens eccentricus by Juan Cisneros An artist’s impression of Tiarajudens eccentricus by Juan CisnerosProfessor Bruce Rubidge, the director of the institute, says the university is striving to be a continental institution of choice in paleontological studies.
“We want to be the place in Africa where people [will] come and study these things and do research on them. We are actively working on getting more expertise that covers the whole paleontological record of South Africa,” he explains.

Following the recent discovery of a 260-million-year-old fossil in Brazil, Rubidge says Wits has cemented its place globally as a pioneer of fossil finds. South Africa is rich in fossils, and has a chronological record of the time ancestors of all existing land-living vertebrates were evolving. Fossils from the country are crucial to understanding the development of ecosystems through time, he notes.

The abundance of fossils in South Africa enables the university to study changes in biodiversity, particularly global mass extinction events, he says. In the past 20-odd years, palaeontologists at the BPI, in collaboration with other scientists from around the world, have undertaken several research projects on the oldest fossils, to understand the distant ancestry of mammals.

The fossil in Brazil was discovered by Rubidge’s protégé and a Wits alumnus, Dr Juan Cisneros, who brought it to Wits to consult with the BPI on its features and characteristics. “Obviously we have the expertise and we were the logical people to work with,” says Rubidge.

Northern Cape link
It is of a primitive anomodonts and is proven to have links with one discovered in Northern Cape in 1999, by Rubidge and his team. Scientists in Brazil discovered that the fossil was of a unique sabre-tooth herbivore. Cisneros named it Tiarajudens eccentricus after Tiarajú, in southern Brazil where he found it. Tiarajudens eccentricus means “eccentric tooth from Tiarajú”.

Rubidge says the fossil is from the extinct anomodonts within the Therapsida order, four-footed herbivores species that dominated the planet in the Permian period, shortly before the dinosaur epoch. “Previously, up until we found this one, we had thought that the anomodonts originated in Russia. Then our find proved that we had even more primitive ones in South Africa, which proved their origin in the southern rather than the northern hemisphere,” explains Rubidge.

Wits professor Lee Berger with the cranium of Australopithecus sedibaWits professor Lee Berger with the cranium of Australopithecus sedibaHe believes the animal was probably a male. It has long canine teeth that are “very characteristic, strange and impractical”. “One other interesting thing about it is that the teeth have got very large binding surfaces. Now in the Permian period there were no animals yet on Earth that had grinding teeth, but this one does. So it is the earliest evidence of grinding teeth in mammalians in the world.”
Its skull is also interesting. “Firstly, because it is a plant-eating animal yet it has got very, very long canine teeth, which is a strange characteristic for any plant-eating animal because you don’t find an antelope in the Kruger Park having long canines. What do they use them for?”

As a result of the find, a scientific paper on the subject has been co-written by Cisneros, Rubidge and Fernando Abdala and published in the Wits journal, Science. Rubidge has published more than 100 articles in national and international scientific journals on various aspects of vertebrate palaeontology. He serves on several national and international heritage and geosciences-related committees.

The university says the discovery of the Brazil fossils builds on South Africa’s excellent record of unique fossil finds and is an illustration of progression in science in the country. “This provides additional evidence of geographic contact between terrestrial faunas from these now separate continents. More importantly, it also establishes a temporal bridge, in other words, the faunas having these animals represent nearly similar ages on both continents,” says Rubidge.

Wits University is the curator of faunal, floral and hominid palaeontology collections including the Taung Skull, Little Foot and the Sediba fossils. It is the custodian of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site Trust, designed to ensure that the benefits of the site extend to communities and the advancement of educational and scientific research.

The Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research is currently working on a host of fossil projects, including tracing the earliest ancestors of mammals, which occupied the Karoo about 265 million years ago.

“The reason why we are working on this is because South Africa has got the best record of mammal fossils in the world,” he explains. Studying them looks at changes in biodiversity, so as to better understand the changes in the types of animals that appeared in different times to track if there were extinction events.

The Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research is the only one of its kind linked to a university. “We see ourselves as the place to train students in Africa,” he notes.

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