African fossil find adds valuable information

Scientists have dug up the oldest dinosaur ever discovered in the continent of Africa. This discovery has filled a lot of gaps in questions we had in the fossil record. This new discovery will help paleontologists and other researchers move forward in our path to finding more about our old world. The fossil was found in northern Zimbabwe. A sauropod, it was estimated to be 6 feet long and weighed 20 to 65 pounds.  “These are Africa’s oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world,” explains Christopher Griffin, a graduate from VA Tech’s School of Geosciences. Mbiresaurus raathi could stand on two legs and its head was relatively small like its other relatives. It is said that it is an herbivore or potentially an omnivore due to its small, serrated, triangular teeth.

Mbiresaurus Raathi
Mbiresaurus Raathi by Andrey Atuchin

“The oldest known dinosaurs—from roughly 230 million years ago, the Carnian Stage of the Late Triassic period—are extremely rare and have been recovered from only a few places worldwide, mainly northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and India.” states Christopher Griffin.

It was found during two expeditions in 2017 and 2019. The generic name, “Mbiresaurus,” combines a reference to the Mbire district of Zimbabwe with the Latin “sauros,” meaning “reptile.” The specific name, “raathi,” honors Michael Raath, one of the discoverers of the fossils, and his contributions to Zimbabwean

Christopher Griffin | Photographer: Stephen Tolan

paleontology. Found alongside Mbiresaurus were an assortment of Carnian-age fossils, including a herrerasaurus dinosaur, early mammal relatives such as cynodonts, and armored crocodilian relatives such as aetosaurs, and, in Griffin’s description, “bizarre, archaic reptiles” known as rhynchosaurs, again typically found in South America and India from this same time period. Africa, like all continents, was once part of the supercontinent called Pangea. The climate across Pangea is thought to have been divided into strong humid and arid belts, with temperate belts spanning higher latitudes and intense deserts across the lower tropics of Pangea.

Scientists previously believed that these climate belts influenced and constrained animal distribution across Pangea, said Griffin.

“Because dinosaurs at first broke up and moved away under this (related to the Earth’s weather) pattern, the early breaking up and moving away of dinosaurs should therefore have been controlled by (how north or south you are/freedom to make decisions),” Griffin said. More so, these earliest dinosaurs were restricted by (related to the Earth’s weather) bands to southern Pangea, and only later in their history broke up and moved away worldwide. The teams from Zimbabwe’s scientific institutions were excited and proud by the finding. “The discovery of the Mbiresaurus is an exciting and special find for Zimbabwe and the whole paleontological field,” said Michel Zondo, a master collector and (something in a rock that lived a long time ago/old, outdated thing) at The Natural History Museum.

“The fact that the Mbiresaurus skeleton is almost complete makes it a perfect reference material for further finds. It is the first sauropodomorph find of its size from Zimbabwe, otherwise most of our sauropodomorph finds from here are usually of medium to large sized animals.” Most of the Mbiresaurus skeleton is being kept in Virginia Tech’s Derring Hall to be cleaned and studied. However, it will eventually be transferred to the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, along with any additional fossils found in the area, the university said. There is still much to discover about Mbiresaurus Raathi: its diet, habitat, to be sure if it was a herbivore or omnivore, how it took care of itself, and other things. Scientists are working hard to get more information about it, so stay tuned!