Palaeontologists, along with the huge number of people simply interested in dinosaurs and the age in which they lived, are thrilled with the news that a new dinosaur has been discovered. Actually, rediscovered is more appropriate. It was originally found in a collection of fossils stored at Harvard University, where a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, Paul Sereno, found it, but didn’t announce the findings for many years. He recently published an article about it in the journal ZooKeys. Sereno is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.
In a New York Times report, he explained how he discovered the fossilised remains of the dinosaur in a rock as he explored specimens. He was instantly amazed because it was clearly a very distinct new species. It was a tiny creature, probably about the weight of a house cat, with a parrot-like beak, a tiny jaw and a skull of no more than three inches in length.
However, Sereno had to apologise for the length of time he had taken to announce his findings to the rest of the world. Apparently, he had first spotted the fossil back in 1983 when he was a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History. Working on a slab of rock that scientists had collected from South Africa in the 1960s, he was impressed with his findings, but at that point, not enough to do anything about it. Since then, he had been waiting for the news that someone else had made the discovery, but that never happened.
The slab of rock is believed to be from the early dinosaur period, around 200 million years ago. At the time, numerous tiny plant-eating dinosaurs were in existence, known as heterodontosaurs, and were amongst the first dinosaurs to spread across the world. Named Pegomastax africanus, or ‘thick jaw from Africa,’ the new species is so-called because of its sharp, fanged teeth, which are rare for a creature that would have eaten only plants.
According to the University of Chicago website, other palaeontologists have argued that some heterodontosaurs may indeed have been meat-eaters, or at least insect-eaters, but Sereno still maintains that Pegomastax aricanus was a plant-eater and would have used its teeth for self-defense purposes only. Sereno noted in his article that the jaw structure of the Pegomastax was ahead of its time and evolved millions of years later in other mammals.
For further self-protection, the Pegomastax africanus was likely covered in bristles, something like those of a porcupine, and long legs, which would enable them to escape from predators in record time. Its tiny size belies its power and ferocity – anyone toying with the idea of having this pint-sized dinosaur as a pet would need to keep it at arms-length to avoid being nipped and pricked!
A video re-creating what the dinosaur’s head and neck would have looked like can be seen on the National Geographic website.