The international team of scientists from Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United Kingdom at the Musankwa sanyatiensis fossil locality on Spurwing Island, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. Credit: Lara Sciscio

Lire en français

A partial leg found in Zimbabwe on the shoreline of Lake Kariba, on Spurwing Island in the Mid-Zambezi Basin has been identified as that of a newly identified species of sauropodomorph dinosaur.

Sauropodomorphs are a group of dinosaurs that have long necks, small heads and eat plants. They started off as small to medium-sized, walking on two legs but, evolved into the largest animals to have lived on land, according to Kimi Chapelle, a paleontologist from Stony Brook University, New York, and the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Artist reconstruction of Musankwa sanyatiensis, walking in Triassic shallow waters past a metoposaur. Credit: Atashni Moopen

The rear leg find, from Musankwa sanyatiensis, was revealed in a study in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. The team named their discovery after the houseboat Musankwa where they stayed during their fieldwork. In the Tonga dialect, Musankwa means ‘boy close to marriage’.

The holotype — the single specimen upon which the description of a new species is based — comprises a right femur, tibia, and astragalus and exhibits a distinctive combination of features setting it apart from other Late Triassic massopodan sauropodomorphs. Phylogenetic analysis positions Musankwa as the earliest branching member within Massopoda.

Musankwa sanyatiensis leg bones as they were discovered in the ground on Spurwing Island, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe Credit: Paul Barrett

“We estimate Musankwa sanyatiensis to have weighed about 390 kg, it was probably around 5m long from the tip of the snout to the tip of tail, and 1.5m high at the hip.”

It lived 210 million years ago, during the Late Triassic, before the end-Triassic Extinction which wiped out 70% of Earth's species.

“The group of sauropodomorph dinosaurs like Musankwa appear unaffected by the extinction event,” says Chapelle.

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a paleobiologist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, says after this massive extinction event, ecosystems recovered and we see the rise of sauropodomorphs.

Africa has a rich history of dinosaur discovery, but undersampling means that few are discovered. This marks only the fourth dinosaur species named from Zimbabwe's Karoo-aged basins, underscoring the region's significant potential for yielding dinosaur fossils.

“We are sure there are many more to be discovered,” says Paul Barrett, from the Natural History Museum in London, who led the study.

“The main reason for the underrepresentation of African dinosaur fossils is because there have been fewer people looking for and unearthing dinosaurs in comparison with other regions of the world” he says.