SCIENTISTS on Tuesday announced the discovery of a 2-million-year-old fox fossil, a new species, at the Cradle of Humankind’s Malapa site.

This is the latest offering from the Malapa site, which in 2008 yielded the remains of Australopithecus sediba.

The discovery of A. sediba — thought to be an early human ancestor that combines simian and modern human characteristics — has turned South Africa into a strategic geographic location for the study of human origins, attracting international researchers to the continent and forcing the government to review its funding of this type of research.

Now, researchers from the universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand, in collaboration with international scientists, have shown that the Malapa site contains other previously unknown species.

The 2-million-year-old fox — named Vulpes skinneri, after recently deceased mammologist and ecologist Prof John Skinner — was distinguishable from known species "based on (the) proportions of its teeth and other aspects of its anatomy", Wits University said on Wednesday.

"The new fox fossils consist of a mandible and parts of the skeleton and can be distinguished from any living or extinct form of fox known to science," it said.

Brian Kuhn, a professor at Wits’ Institute for Human Evolution as well as an author on the paper and head of the Malapa carnivore studies, said: "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."

Wits palaeoanthropologist Prof Lee Berger, who discovered A. sediba in 2008, said: "Malapa continues to reveal this extraordinary record of past life. 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?"