About 200 million years ago, South Africa was home to the largest dinosaur on Earth, according to new research. At 12 tons (or more than 10,000 kilograms), this dinosaur is the largest to be discovered in the country to date - about double the size of an African elephant. It would have stood more than four metres tall, and was a relative of dinosaurs like the brontosaurus.
The international team, led by Wits University paleoscientist Jonah Choiniere, named the new species Ledumahadi mafube. In Southern Sotho, “ledumahadi” means giant thunder clap which is a nod to its large size, while “mafube” means dawn, referencing the species’ early position on the lineage.
2018 is the year for giant dinosaur discoveries: In July, researchers in Argentina announced the discovery of Ingentia prima, which means “first giant”. Like L. mafube, it was a sauropodomorph, a type of dinosaur which had a small head and long neck, but it was smaller (it weighed about 10 tons) and lived about 210-million years ago. I. prima was living about 30-million years before we had previously thought that very large dinosaurs emerged.
The two finds reinforce that the supercontinent of Pangaea was still assembled in the early Jurassic period. “It shows how easily dinosaurs could have walked from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires at that time,” says Choiniere.
“Today South Africa and Argentina are separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but they were once neighbours in the supercontinent,” says Diego Pol, a paleontologist at the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Argentina. “This is why we have been finding the same kind of dinosaurs in rocks of similar age, and integrating all this new information is key for interpreting this unique evolutionary event.”
Choiniere, who has been at Wits University for about five years, says that it is "really a wonderful time to be a dinosaur scientist in South Africa".
“I just returned from two weeks of field work where we were finding all sorts of new stuff,” he says. Earlier this month, Choiniere and international collaborators announced the discovery of a dinosaur graveyard in the Eastern Cape.
But large questions remain about how animals like I. prima and L. mafube evolved into the truly gigantic sauropods, such as the brontosaurus which weighed upward of 60 ton.
In their paper, published on Thursday in scientific journal Current Biology, the researchers argue that L. mafube was an evolutionary experiment -- and shows that this type of dinosaur (sauropodomorphs) did not neatly evolve from walking on two legs to walking on four. L. mafube was walking on four legs on Earth in the Jurassic Period, before the later sauropods were once again walking on two legs and then four.
While they welcomed the discovery of the new dinosaur, international experts say that the claim of quadrupedalism is contentious and as a next step researchers need to test whether it was physically possible for a 12-ton animal to walk on four legs.
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