Africa's oldest dinosaur skeleton discovered in Zimbabwe

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An international team of paleontologists have uncovered what they believe to be the oldest dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in Africa. The skeleton of the Mbiresaurus raathi — described as a long-neck plant-eating dinosaur — was found in northern Zimbabwe, according to a news release Wednesday from Virginia Tech. The Mbiresaurus raathi lived more than 230 million years ago, researchers said.

The Mbiresaurus raathi was about 6-feet-long, had a long tail, and weighed anywhere from 20 to 65 pounds. The Mbiresaurus raathi is considered a sauropodomorph, a long-necked dinosaur.

Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (in the foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal assemblage in the background. It includes two rhynchosaurs (at front right), an aetosaur (at left), and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (at back right) / Credit: Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech
Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (in the foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal assemblage in the background. It includes two rhynchosaurs (at front right), an aetosaur (at left), and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (at back right) / Credit: Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech

The mostly intact skeleton was found by Virginia Tech student Christopher Griffin and other paleontologists during two digs in Zimbabwe in 2017 and 2019. The international team of researchers who found the skeleton said its only missing parts were some of the hand and portions of the skull.

"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," Griffin said in a statement.

Based off their findings, the Mbiresaurus stood on two legs and had a relatively small head with serrated triangle-shaped teeth.

"These are Africa's oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world." Griffin said. "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."

Christopher Griffin in 2017, excavating part of the Mbiresaurus raathi skeleton, wrapped in a plaster field jacket. / Credit: Stephen Tolan, for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech
Christopher Griffin in 2017, excavating part of the Mbiresaurus raathi skeleton, wrapped in a plaster field jacket. / Credit: Stephen Tolan, for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech

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.

"The fact that the Mbiresaurus skeleton is almost complete makes it a perfect reference material for further finds," Michel Zondo, a curator and fossil preparer at the museum, stated in a press release. "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."

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