Africa’s oldest dinosaur skeleton has been discovered in Zimbabwe

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

Mbiresaurus raathi was about 6 feet long, had a long tail, and weighed between 20 and 65 kilograms. Mbiresaurus raathi is considered a sauropod, a long-necked dinosaur.

Artist’s rendering of Mbiresaurus raathi (foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean fauna in the background. Includes two rhychosaurs (front right), an aetosaurus (left), and an errasaurid dinosaur chasing a canine (back right) / Credit: Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech

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

“The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fills a critical geographic gap in the fossil record of the earliest dinosaurs and demonstrates the power of hypothesis-driven fieldwork to test predictions about the ancient past,” Griffin said in a statement.

Based on their findings, Mbiresaurus stood on two legs and had a relatively small head with jagged, triangular teeth.

“These are the oldest known definitive dinosaurs from Africa, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world.” Griffin said. “The earliest known dinosaurs – from about 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 from northern Argentina, southern Brazil and India.”

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

Most of the Mbiresaurus skeleton is kept in Virginia Tech’s Derring Hall to be cleaned and studied. However, it will eventually be transferred to the Zimbabwe Museum of Natural History in Bulawayo, along with any additional fossils found in the area, the university said.

“The fact that the skeleton of Mbiresaurus is almost complete makes it perfect reference material for further finds,” said Michel Zondo, curator and fossil preparer at the museum, in a press release. “It is the first find of a sauropod of its size from Zimbabwe, otherwise most of the sauropod finds from here are usually medium to large sized animals.”

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