• A newly discovered dinosaur belongs to the group a titanosaurs, huge, long-necked dinos that were among the largest land animals ever.
• The creature, called Mnyamawamtuka, lived about 100 million years ago and probably weighed a ton, meaning it was small by big dino standards.
• It could tell scientists something important about how the biggest dinos grew and changed over time.
World, meet Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia.
The newly reported species, a member of the towering titanosaurs, isn't the biggest of her species found. But the new fossil provides evidence for how African and South American longnecks converged and diverged. The results, published today in the science journal , reveal more about a mysterious part of our planet's past: Africa in the Mesozoic era, specifically the Cretaceous, the last age of dinosaurs.
"With these and other discoveries, we're starting to see that African faunas were likely to have been just as diverse as those found in South America and elsewhere," says Eric Gorscak, a Midwestern University researcher and lead author on the paper. "There is still a long ways to go because there have been many paleontological efforts in many parts of the world the past several decades when compared to Africa, although it's getting much better recently. We're just now starting to see the larger picture unfolding in front of us for ancient Africa!"
Understanding Mnyamawamtuka's era is particularly important because this is the time when Pangaea—the theorized supercontinent—began to break apart into the continents we know now. South America and Africa became two separate entities, and took with them related species of dinosaurs that would drift apart genetically.
Mnyamawamtuka isn't the biggest titanosaur found. That record belongs to Argentinosaurus huinculensis, a 130-foot long cousin of the newfound species. In fact, Mnyamawamtuka may have been on the smaller side—at least, as far as giant dinosaurs are concerned.
The discovered specimen likely weighed one ton and was about as tall as a person from foot to hip, according to Gorscak. However, this particular specimen might have been a juvenile. "We're not sure just how large it would have been when fully mature, but it definitely had a ways to go," Gorscak says.
One of the most distinguishing features of the dino was a tail vertebrae shaped a bit like a half of a Valentine's Day heart. This feature is fairly unique to Mnyamawamtuka, with only two other cousin species with anything remotely similar.
At the time it lived 100 million years ago, it would have likely thundered through floodplains and river deltas, foraging for whatever plant matter it could grasp. Based on its age and shape of its (incomplete) skeleton, Gorscak and colleagues place it at an evolutionary point just before the titanosaurs heavily diversified.
"Since we have a good portion of the skeleton, we see a unique combination of traits from both early titanosaurs and some features we thought were present in titanosaurs later on in their evolution," he says.
Thus, it may not be the most titanic of them all, but it's a fairly important find in understanding how some of the biggest dinosaurs of all time grew and changed over time.