420 million years ago, life began moving slowly up from ocean habitats onto land. During this time, land on Earth was separated into a southern supercontinent, known as Gondwana, and a northern landmass – Laurasia. First plants, then small invertebrates crawled out of the ocean to start a terrestrial tradition.

The evidence for the earliest land living, however, has until now been found only on what was Laurasia, in areas in Asia. Robert Gess from the University of Witwatersrand reported August 28 in the journal African Invertebrates that a new scorpion species from Gondwana has been discovered – a find that is changing paleontological thought about early terrestrial life.

Gondwanascorpio emzantsiensis lived 350 million years ago, during the Late Devonian, in what is now Eastern Cape, South Africa. Gess discovered and examined fossils of one of the creature’s legs– including the patella, telson, and a body segment.

Gondwanascorpio emzantsiensis is similar to scorpions now living in China (the area that used to be Laurasia). Its fossils indicate that the ancient supercontinents Gondwana and Laurasia were probably closer in distance than scientists had previously estimated. The modern scorpions may be living relatives of the prehistoric G. emzantsiensis – the two probably shared an ancestor long ago that migrated across the supercontinents and subsequently diverged into different species.

Just like any other living creature, G. emzantsiensis couldn’t have lived alone – its remains tell scientists that whole ecosystems must have been thriving on Gondwana hundreds of millions of years ago. The smaller animals on which G. emzantsiensis preyed, as well as plants and co-existing invertebrates, were probably thriving alongside this prehistoric scorpion.


Gess, R. The earliest record of terrestrial animals in Gondwana: A scorpion from the Famennian (Late Devonian) Witpoort Formation of South Africa. African Invertebrates, 54(2), 373-379. Retrieved from http://africaninvertebrates.org/ojs/index.php/AI/article/viewFile/284/252

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: October 22, 2013

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