Few prehistoric creatures generate as much excitement and awe as dinosaurs. Whether it’s the “tyrant” T-Rex or a slim-necked Brachiosaurus, people are fascinated by these creatures that dominated landscapes all over the world – including across the African continent – hundreds of millions of years ago.
The dinosaurs are long gone (though we’re still surrounded by their direct descendants, birds). But researchers are still hard at work piecing together the fossil record to create a fuller picture of how dinosaurs lived, walked, ate and raised their young. Their discoveries offer a glimpse into ancient landscapes, helping modern scientists to better understand today’s climates and ecosystems.
The Conversation Africa has showcased a number of dinosaur finds on the continent. Here are five essential reads:
A rich record
Africa is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of humankind. But less attention is paid to its incredibly varied fossil record. Many of the planet’s most important life forms originated on the continent: bacteria-like organisms; many dinosaur species and, of course, primates – including humans. Even the rocks on the continent are among the oldest in the world. Some of them date back more than three billion years.
That’s what prompted Julien Benoit to create a syllabus for his palaeontology students that centred African fossil discoveries rather than focusing on finds from elsewhere in the world.
Hidden in plain sight
Many museums and universities keep extensive fossil collections. Their contents have been studied, labelled and catalogued. Sometimes, however, they hold secrets that can only be uncovered through a combination of scientific hunch and cutting-edge technology. That’s how Kimberley E.J. Chapelle discovered and described an entirely new species: Ngwevu intloko (“grey skull” in isiXhosa).
A giant African dinosaur
Researchers are constantly rewriting the fossil record thanks to new discoveries. Dinosaurs’ fossilised footprints are a useful tool for this work, as evidenced by a – literally – gigantic find in Lesotho.
It was previously thought that ancient southern African landscapes were dominated by small and agile two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods. But Lara Sciscio and her colleagues’ study in Lesotho unexpectedly revealed that very large carnivorous dinosaurs with an estimated body length of between 8 and 9 metres (or 26 feet) – that’s a two-storey building or two adult rhinos nose to tail – lived in the region too.
Still on the subject of footprints, it turns out that fossilised dinosaur prints hold incredible detail about more than just the size and shape of the creature that made them. As Miengah Abrahams explains, they can reveal what organism made the tracks – different animals have different footprint shapes. They offer clues to the creature’s behaviour and may even contain evidence of what sort of environment dinosaurs roamed – did they sink into wet sand, or were they standing firmly on dry gravel?
A toothy morsel
Moving from feet to teeth: dinosaurs’ chompers hold important clues to their lives, diets and how they moved across landscapes. That’s why Femke Holwerda ventured to the Kem Kem beds, a geological formation in North Africa, to seek out fossil dinosaur teeth. Her discoveries allowed her to create a fuller picture of the long-necked, plant-eating (herbivorous) dinosaurs, called sauropods, from the Early Cretaceous period of North Africa.