New Fossil Fox Discovered in South Africa, Co-Existed with Australopithecus

An international team of scientists has discovered a 2-million-year-old species of fox at the site of Malapa in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, South Africa.

Left: mandibles of the newly found Vulpes skinneri, and extant species: the Cape fox Vulpes chama, the Fennec fox Vulpes zerda, the Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, the Bat-eared fox Otocyon megalotis. Scale is 10 mm x 2 mm (Adam Hartstone-Rose et al). Right: foxes in life, from top to bottom – the Cape fox Vulpes chama, the Fennec fox Vulpes zerda, the Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, the Bat-eared fox Otocyon megalotis (Susann Eurich / Umberto Salvagnin / Keven Law / Hectonichus / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since its discovery in 2008, the Malapa site has yielded one of the most extraordinary fossil assemblages in the African record, including skeletons of a new species of human ancestor named Australopithecus sediba.

The new fox fossils, described in a paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (full paper), include a mandible and parts of the skeleton.

“It’s exciting to see a new fossil fox. 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,” said study co-author Dr Brian Kuhn of the Wits University’s Institute for Human Evolution.

The new species was named Vulpes skinneri, in honor of the recently deceased renowned South African mammalogist and ecologist Prof. John Skinner of the University of Pretoria.

“The entire team has expressed their privilege in naming the new species after John Skinner, one of the great names in the study of African mammals and particularly carnivores. We (the authors) think that John would be pleased, and it is fitting that this rare little find would carry his name forever.”

“Malapa continues to reveal this extraordinary record of past life and as important as the human ancestors are from the site, the site’s contribution to our understanding of the evolution of modern African mammals through wonderful specimens like this fox is of equal import. Who knows what we will find next?” said Prof Lee Berger, also of the Wits University’s Institute for Human Evolution.

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Bibliographic information: Adam Hartstone-Rose et al. 2013. A new species of fox from the Australopithecus sediba type locality, Malapa, South Africa. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, published online 16 January, 2013; doi: 10.1080/0035919X.2012.748698