More than two-dozen complete fossils of Africa's earliest known coelacanth, a new species named Serenichthys kowiensis, have been found.
The specimens, 30 in total, were discovered near Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in what was once an estuary 360 million years ago.
Paleontologist Robert Gess, of the University of the Witwatersrand, and Michael Coates, from the University of Chicago, worked together to describe the new species from the fossils, which were found by Gess.
"Remarkably," said Gess, in a press release, "all of the delicate whole fish impressions represent juveniles. This suggests that Serenichthys was using a shallow, waterweed-filled embayment of the estuary as a nursery, as many fish do today."
"This glimpse into the early life history of ancient coelacanths raises further questions about the life history of the modern coelacanth, Latimeria, which is known to bear live young, but whether they, too, are clustered in nurseries remains unknown," added Coates.
The coelacanth is believed to date to the Devonian Period, more than 400 million years ago. But only five species from that far back have ever been described, and none from Africa.
Analysis of the new species, however, has helped fill in a bit more of the murky picture of the creature's evolution, the scientists say.
"According to our evolutionary analysis, it is the Devonian species that most closely resembles the line leading to modern coelacanths," said Gess.
Fittingly enough, the new species remains were found only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the mouth of the Chalumna River, where the first modern, but still quite mysterious, coelacanth (a fish long thought extinct) was caught in 1938.
Gess and Coates's work is published in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society of London.