A Fossil Fox With A Difference
Malapa Fox : Wits University
The palaeoanthropological community got excited with the discovery of new hominin fossils at the site of Malapa, in South Africa, over two years ago.
The excited was linked to the possibilities of what the two individuals could reveal about the origins of humanity. The refreshing aspect here is the scientific team’s endeavour to publish papers on the other fossil remains that found their way into the Malapa cave system 1.977 million years ago.
The latest paper to be published about the remains of Malapa draws our attention to a little known remains of fox fossils. The three specimens were compared to both fossil and extant remains of fox. The Malapa fox is sufficiently different from the comparative sample to warrant a new species for the Malapa fox – Vulpes skinneri.
Though debatable, the earliest fox is thought to be Metalopex macconnelli a Californian fox dating to about 10.5 Ma. How the fox dispersed into Africa from there, is a major focus of palaeontological debate. Vulpes riffautae is the earliest representative of foxes in Africa about 8 Ma.
One would imagine Europe being the missing link in the chain from the Americas and Africa. From then on fossil fox remains have been uncovered in the eastern and southern regions of the African continent. By the Pleistocene Nyctereutes terblanche was roaming the now famous “Cradle of Humankind” in South Africa. The Scottish palaeontologist Robert Broom referred to this species as a jackal, but it is now generally considered a Racoon Dog.
The fox found in the Malapa sediments is represented by three pieces of bone or specimens coded as follows:
U.W. 88-812: Jaw Fragment
U.W. 88-814: Second Wisdom Tooth
U.W. 88-183: Rib
These remains were attributed to Vulpes cf. V. chama when they were first described in another paper in 2010. Time passes and research continues to a point where the palaeontological team now believe there is considerable shape differences in the bones and teeth to suggest a new species. The Malapa fox remains were compared to a wide variety of museum collections throughout the world, including the natural history museums of New York, South Africa and Stockholm.
The species compared included V. pattisoni and V. chama, with the Malapa fox showing more similarities with the extant (living) foxes of South Africa. Most species of organism on the planet has a holotype, which is a specimen that other skeletal remains can be compared to. It basically acts as a standard for a species. The team of scientists realised that the holotype of V. pattisoni is likely to be a juvenile as evidence from the crowded cheek teeth.
The Malapa fox exhibited differences in dental morphology to those of the above mentioned two fossil species and so the team of palaeontologists considered it appropriate to propose a new species – V. skinneri.
Professor John D. Skinner was director of the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Institute and so his name was appropriate from the Malapa Fox.