Not just any old woodpecker

  • January 28, 2013 | Mildred Thabane


																		Bones of Australopicus nelsonmandelai, which was named after former South African president Nelson Mandela. Image courtesy of Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Australopicus nelsonmandelai. Does any part of this genus and species sound familiar?

Last year, French and German scientists unearthed a woodpecker species at the Langebaanweg fossil site on the south-west coast of South Africa. The woodpecker, the oldest ever found on the African continent, was named after Nelson Mandela in tribute to his 94th birthday.

Australopicus nelsonmandelai is believed to have lived in the early Pliocene period, which dates back to about 5-million to 3-million years ago, and is related to woodpecker species found in the Americas and Eurasia today.

A report in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology says this new group of woodpeckers represents a previously unknown fourth lineage of African woodpeckers of Eurasian origin that are thought to have become isolated on the African continent as a result of environmental changes.

This find is also said to provide evidence for the theory that the Langebaanweg area, which is now dominated by fynbos, a type of shrubland vegetation, was previously a riverine forest in the Pliocene period.

The species is described as having had short stocky legs that measured 20mm to 25mm and wings that measured 17mm to 19mm, and was about the size of a great spotted woodpecker.

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