Africa’s oldest dinosaur skeleton, the Mbiresaurus raathi, discovered in Zimbabwe


An international team of paleontologists has discovered what they believe to be the oldest dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in Africa. The skeleton of Mbiresaurus raathi – described as a long-necked, herbivorous dinosaur – has been found in northern Zimbabwe, according to a Virginia Tech news release Wednesday. The Mbiresaurus raathi lived more than 230 million years ago, researchers said.

The Mbiresaurus raathi was about 6 feet long with a long tail and weighed between 20 and 65 pounds. The Mbiresaurus raathi is considered a sauropodomorph, a long-necked dinosaur.

Artist’s reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (in the foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal collection in the background. It includes two rhynchosaurs (front right), an aetosaur (left), and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (back right).

Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech

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

“The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fills a critical geographic gap in the fossil record of the oldest 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, the Mbiresaurus stood on two legs and had a relatively small head with jagged triangular teeth.

“These are Africa’s oldest known definitive dinosaurs, roughly the same age as the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world.” said Griffin. “The oldest known dinosaurs – around 230 million years ago, the late Triassic Carnic stage – are extremely rare and have only been recovered from a few locations worldwide, mainly in northern Argentina, southern Brazil and India.”

Christopher Griffin in 2017 excavating part of the Mbiresaurus raathi skeleton, wrapped in a plaster field jacket.

Stephen Tolan, for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech

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

“The fact that the Mbiresaurus skeleton is almost complete makes it perfect reference material for future finds,” says Michel Zondo. a curator and fossil preparator at the museum, according to a press release. “It’s the first sauropodomorph record of its size from Zimbabwe, otherwise most of our sauropodomorph records from here are usually medium to large animals.”

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