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06-14-2024

New dinosaur species is named Musankwa sanyatiensis

Fossils discovered on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe have unveiled a new dinosaur species, Musankwa sanyatiensis.

This discovery marks only the fourth dinosaur species named from Zimbabwe, with research published in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

This discovery, led by Prof. Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London, is significant as it is the first dinosaur named from the Mid-Zambezi Basin of northern Zimbabwe in over 50 years.

History of Zimbabwean dinosaurs

Musankwa sanyatiensis is only the fourth dinosaur named from Zimbabwe, following Syntarsus rhodesiensis (1969), Vulcanodon karibaensis (1972), and Mbiresaurus raathi (2022).

The new specimen’s rocks date back to the Late Triassic period, around 210 million years ago. The dinosaur is represented by a single hind leg, including the thigh, shin, and ankle bones.

“Despite the limited fossil material, these bones possess unique features that distinguish them from those of other dinosaurs living at the same time,” says Dr. Kimberley “Kimi” Chapelle, assistant professor at Stony Brook University and an honorary associate at Wits.

Musankwa sanyatiensis and its relatives

The dinosaur was named after the houseboat “Musankwa,” which means “boy close to marriage” in the Tonga dialect.

This vessel served as the research team’s home and mobile laboratory during two field expeditions to Lake Kariba in 2017 and 2018, thanks to David and Julie Glynn and their crew — Coster Katupu, Godfrey Swalika, Simbarashe Mangoroma, and Never Mapira.

Musankwa sanyatiensis leg bones discovered in Zimbabwe. Credit: Paul Barrett
Musankwa sanyatiensis leg bones discovered in Zimbabwe. Credit: Paul Barrett

Evolutionary analysis shows that Musankwa sanyatiensis was a member of the Sauropodomorpha, a group of bipedal, long-necked dinosaurs.

It appears to be closely related to contemporaries in South Africa and Argentina. Weighing around 390 kg, this plant-eating dinosaur was one of the larger dinosaurs of its era.

Africa’s dinosaur discovery history

Africa has a significant history of dinosaur discoveries. This history began with the first dinosaur found in the southern hemisphere in South Africa.

This discovery happened just three years after Sir Richard Owen introduced the term “dinosaur” in 1842. Since then, Africa has continued to yield important dinosaur fossils, contributing to our understanding of prehistoric life on the continent.

The discoveries from Africa include many species that help scientists learn more about dinosaur diversity and evolution.

However, most known dinosaur fossils come from just ten countries, primarily in the northern hemisphere, leading to a sparse representation of African dinosaur diversity.

“The main reason for the underrepresentation of African dinosaur fossils is ‘undersampling,'” says Barrett. “There have been fewer people looking for and unearthing dinosaurs compared to other regions of the world.”

Importance of Zimbabwe’s fossil record

Despite fewer discoveries in Africa, many fossils are historically and scientifically significant, including some of the oldest dinosaurs like Nyasasaurus parringtoni from Tanzania and Mbiresaurus raathi from Zimbabwe.

The Late Triassic-Early Jurassic sediments of Zimbabwe are vital for studying the End-Triassic extinction event. This event occurred around 200 million years ago and significantly altered the diversity of life on Earth.

By examining these sediments, scientists can gain insights into the environmental changes and biological impacts that occurred during this period.

Understanding these changes helps researchers reconstruct the history of life on Earth and the factors that led to the mass extinction and subsequent evolution of new species.

Musankwa sanyatiensis paleontological potential

This new species highlights the untapped potential of Zimbabwe for further paleontological discoveries.

“Over the last six years, many new fossil sites have been recorded in Zimbabwe, yielding a diverse array of prehistoric animals, including the first sub-Saharan mainland African phytosaurs, metoposaurid amphibians, lungfish, and other reptile remains,” Barrett elaborates.

Illustration of Musankwa sanyatiensis. Credit: Atashni Moopen
Illustration of Musankwa sanyatiensis. Credit: Atashni Moopen

As more fossil sites are explored, there is hope for uncovering further significant finds that will shed light on the early evolution of dinosaurs and their ecosystems.

“Based on where it sits on the dinosaur family tree, Musankwa sanyatiensis is the first dinosaur of its kind from Zimbabwe,” Dr. Chapelle explains. “It highlights the potential of the region for further paleontological discoveries.”

Collaborative effort by international scientists

An international team from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, and Stony Brook University in New York, led by Prof. Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London, conducted the study.

The full study was published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

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