Southern Africa already has its fair share of pretty impressive predators. Lions stalk through the bush, great white sharks devour sea lions, and honey badgers, well they just don’t give a shit who they take on. But 200 million years ago there was an even more formidable beast roaming the bushveld, as researchers have uncovered evidence of a "mega-carnivore" dinosaur.
Discovered in the Maseru District of Lesotho, researchers found the footprints of a giant theropod that at some point during the early Jurassic wandered across the soft sand or mud of an ancient watering hole. The trackways, which are thought to be the largest theropod tracks ever discovered in Africa, measure in at 57 centimeters (22 inches) long by 50 centimeters (20 inches) wide, and are thought to belong to a completely new species of dinosaur.
“The latest discovery is very exciting and sheds new light on the kind of carnivore that roamed what is now southern Africa,” said the University of Manchester’s Dr Fabien Knoll, co-author of the paper published in PLOS ONE. “That's because it is the first evidence of an extremely large meat-eating animal roaming a landscape otherwise dominated by a variety of herbivorous, omnivorous and much smaller carnivorous dinosaurs.”
“It really would have been top of the food chain,” Dr Knoll continued.
The trace fossils, as footprints and trackways are known, have been used to describe the beast that left them as a new species called Kayentapus ambrokholohali. The researchers can be fairly certain that they do indeed belong to a new species and not some other named dinosaur, because to put it simply, there are no other known theropod dinosaurs from this region during this period of time that grew so large.
From the footprints, they are able to discern that the animal that left them must have been a rather disconcerting 9 meters (30 feet) long and stood at around 3 meters (10 feet) tall at the hip. Up until now, it was thought that during the early Jurassic, theropod dinosaurs were much smaller, and that it wouldn’t be for another 50 million years that they grew to the size of the more well-known T. rex.
“This makes it a significant find. Globally, these large tracks are very rare,” co-author Dr Lara Sciscio said. “There is only one other known site similar in age and sized tracks, which is in Poland.”
The find helps to build a better image of what the environment was like in the southern part of Gondwana at this time, and what fierce critters other dinosaurs had to contend with.