The oldest dinosaur ever found in Africa was discovered by a graduate student from the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences. Incredibly, the ancient animal was mostly intact, enabling a team of paleontologists to identify it as a new-to-science species.
The ancient dinosaur walked on two legs, weighed between 9 to 29 kilograms (20 to 65 pounds), and was around two meters (6 feet) long. It was a member of the Sauropodomorpha, an extinct clade of saurischian dinosaurs. It had a long neck and tail, and a small head armed with the triangular teeth of a herbivore or omnivore.
The new species has been named Mbiresaurus raathi and is published in the journal Nature.
Its name comes from Shona and ancient Greek roots, with "Mbire" being both the name of the district where it was found and that of the Shona dynasty that ruled the region. Paleontologist Michael Raath is honored in the latter name, "raathi", as an early researcher to report on fossils in northern Zimbabwe.
“We never expected to find such a complete and well-preserved dinosaur skeleton,” said lead author Dr Christopher Griffin in a statement, who graduated in 2020 from the Virginia Tech College of Science and is now a post-doctorate researcher at Yale University.
“When I found the femur of Mbiresaurus, I immediately recognized it as belonging to a dinosaur and I knew I was holding the oldest dinosaur ever found in Africa. When I kept digging and found the left hip bone right next to the left thigh bone, I had to stop and take a breath — I knew that a lot of the skeleton was probably there, still articulated together in life position.”
Finding such ancient specimens neatly stacked in their death positions is a rare but fortuitous find, one that a man recently enjoyed in his own back garden where he stumbled across what might be the largest dinosaur ever found in Europe.
The unexpected appearance of M. raathi in the region just goes to show that what we know of the earliest dinosaurs (which lived around 230 million years ago) is only ever one discovery away from being rewritten. Fortunately, this find will enable researchers working on the specimen to try and patch up holes in our current understanding.
“The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fills in a critical geographic gap in the fossil record of the oldest dinosaurs and shows the power of hypothesis-driven fieldwork for testing predictions about the ancient past,” continued Griffin. “These are Africa’s oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world.”