The oldest African dinosaur was discovered in Zimbabwe

The oldest dinosaur species ever discovered in Africa (and one of the oldest dinosaur species to roam the Earth) has been discovered in Zimbabwe, a new study suggests. This finding provides new insights into the evolution of dinosaurs and one of the most fundamental questions of Triassic paleontology: Why did dinosaurs live only in parts of the ancient supercontinent Pangaea?

In 2017, scientists began working on the Pebble Arkose formation in northern Zimbabwe. After five years of exploration and delays due to covid, they finally unveiled the outstanding example of this excavation: Mbiresaurus raathi. The specimen, which includes a relatively complete skeleton, is about 230 million years old, matching the oldest dinosaurs ever discovered. Their results were published on Wednesday, August 31 in the magazine nature Released.

“The earliest dinosaurs were much smaller than the large dinosaurs we commonly think of,” Christian Kammerer, director of paleontological research at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who was not involved in the new research, wrote in an email to LiveScience.

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The newly named dinosaur was a member of the reptilian family, i.e. a relative of tall, long-necked, iconic reptiles such as Brachiosaurus and Apatosaurus. The dinosaur M. raathi was not small, with a length of about two meters and a height of half a meter at the rump, but it seems small compared to later reptiles such as Patagotaitan, which reached a length of 37 meters.

The dinosaur M. raathi lived in the late Triassic period (252 million to 201 million years ago) along the banks of an ancient river in what later became Zimbabwe. This area had a rich ecosystem of different organisms. “I think there are a lot of stories about the different animals we found together,” said Christopher Griffin, lead author of the study and a vertebrate paleontologist at Yale University.

Paleontologists have unearthed numerous mammals called canines, as well as armored crocodiles, strange beaked reptiles called rhynchosaurs, and even evidence of an early carnivorous dinosaur.

During the Triassic period, all the continents of the earth were connected in the form of a huge land mass called Pangea. Because of this ancient proximity, many areas now separated by oceans (such as the coasts of South America and Africa) once shared organisms. “If you draw a line across Pangea that connects northern Argentina and southern Brazil, it also goes through northern Zimbabwe,” Griffin said.

Christopher Griffin / Christopher Griffin

In 2017, the study’s first author, Christopher Griffin, unearthed fossils of Mbiresaurus raathi covered in a special plaster coating.

As a result, M. raathi closely resembles other Late Triassic reptiles such as Euraptor and Saturnalia, both of which have been discovered in Brazil, and some of which have also been found in India.

Why certain animal species moved to certain areas of Pangea during this period is somewhat unclear. “You might think that moving around a supercontinent would be easy,” said Steve Brust, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who was not involved in the study. But apparently it’s not like that.”

However, sites such as the Pebble Archose Formation provide clues to this millennia-old mystery. Relying on past research, the researchers say that what kept Triassic animals in place and prevented them from dispersing further was a different climate and not physical barriers such as oceans.

Relative dinosaurs found in South America, southern central Africa, and India suggest that similar animals roamed freely in these specific geographic areas, but spread outside, possibly due to climatic barriers such as extreme heat or drought, the researchers wrote in their study. did not find

Paleontologists / Paleontolgists

In 2019, paleontologists Sterling Nesbitt (left) and Christopher Griffin (right) unearth the remains of a herrosaur.

Dinosaurs probably did not enter other parts of Pangea until the climatic barriers were removed. But according to the suggestion of the researchers, the lands where other animal groups that have their roots in the Triassic era, such as mammals, turtles, amphibians and reptiles lived, are still affected by the ancient effect of these climatic barriers.

Meanwhile, another dinosaur fossil has been discovered in Africa that may be even older than M. raathi. This dinosaur, which is called Niasasur, was found in a fossil in Tanzania, which is approximately 245 million years old. However, Niasasaurus has been identified based on few bones. Overall, the bones found do not form a complete skeleton to determine whether the specimen was a true dinosaur or one of the ancestors of dinosaurs, called dinosaurs.

In any case, M. raathi is considered a key piece in the mosaic of dinosaur lineage. “The discovery of a new species is very important to science, and the fact that it is the oldest confirmed dinosaur in Africa makes it exceptional,” said paleontologist and deputy executive director of Zimbabwe’s National Museums and Monuments and co-author of the study.

The new specimen is now housed at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, where it will inspire future paleontologists. “We knew almost nothing about the first dinosaurs in Africa, and the discovery of Mbiresaurus changes that,” Brost said. “I think this is one of the most important dinosaur discoveries on earth.”

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