Archaeologists digging outside Johannesburg have unearthed a fossilised species of previously unknown fox, which they hope will help flesh out the evolutionary journey of modern canines.
The new species — named Vulpes Skinneri after South African ecologist John Skinner — is thought to have lived about two million years ago.
The discovery was made at an unassuming hole-in-the-ground site named Malapa, which has proven a treasure trove for archaeologists, palaeontologists and other scientific rock hounds.
Five years ago, fossils belonging to a new species of hominid were discovered at the same location.
The latest find was announced in the journal Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa.
“For one thing, foxes are extremely rare in Africa’s fossil history,” said one of the paper’s authors, Brian Kuhn of the University of the Witwatersrand Institute for Human Evolution.
“The ancestry of foxes is perhaps the most poorly known among African carnivores and to see a potential ancestral form of living foxes is wonderful.
“On top of that, the discovery of a second new species at the same site, in such a short time, is just remarkable.”
Since being discovered in 2008, the site has yielded fossils of more than 80 species of animal, representing five distinct families, including several that have advanced our knowledge of the human family tree.
Most of the samples are in pristine condition, leading Kuhn to speculate Malapa was a “death trap” environment where unsuspecting victims plummeted to their demise.
For whatever reason, their remains were not ravaged by carnivores, resulting in fossils that remain well preserved and in excellent shape for scientists to study.
Scientists hope this remote valley in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site, will yet reveal even more ground-breaking discoveries.
“Who knows what you’re going to find there. They haven’t even begun proper excavation at the site,” said Kuhn.
A fresh dig will start there in a few months.
[Image via AFP]