Scientists Unearth Africa’s Oldest Dinosaur Mbiresaurus raathi In Zimbabwe

Mbiresaurus raathi
A reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi which is one of the oldest dinosaurs in the world using graphic tools (Photo credit Andrey AtuchinVirginia Tech)
A reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi using graphic tools (Photo credit: Andrey AtuchinVirginia Tech)

A team of scientists has found what they described as the oldest dinosaur species in Africa. The finding was at the Pebbly Arkose Formation in northern Zimbabwe. The team has been working on the location since 2017 and finally hit their goal after five years.

The dinosaur named Mbiresaurus raathi measures one meter tall, had jiggered teeth, a long neck, and ran on two legs. The scientists believe the new discovery was a species of sauropodomorph and a close relative of the sauropod which ran on four legs.

Mbiresaurus raathi is believed to be one of the oldest dinosaur species that ever existed on earth. The study beams more light on the evolution of dinosaurs as well as answers one of the basic questions on Triassic paleontology which is, “Why is it that dinosaurs only inhabited certain parts of the ancient supercontinent Pangaea?”

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The Pangaea era was a time in history when the earth’s continent was one big landmass surrounded by water. However, as time went by, the landmass split up. Christopher Griffin who was part of the exploration expanded on how Pangaea explains the distribution of dinosaur fossils.

“If you draw a line across Pangaea joining southern Brazil and northern Argentina, it will cross through northern Zimbabwe too,” Griffin said.

The close proximity of many regions during the Pangaea era explains why they share similar flora and fauna.  

Why it took so long to find

Christopher Griffin in 2017 during the escavation of Mbiresaurus raathi (Photo credit: Stephen TolanVirginia Tech)
Christopher Griffin in 2017 during the excavation of Mbiresaurus raathi (Photo credit: Stephen TolanVirginia Tech)

Although scientists started working on the site in 2017, the excavation suffered setbacks from COVID-19. The nearly complete skeleton is believed to be about 230 million years old.

This places the species at par with the oldest dinosaurs scientists have ever unearthed. The research findings were published in the Nature journal on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

The name of the oldest dinosaur was derived from Mbire, the name of the Shona dynasty that dominated the region. Dr. Michael Raath is the scientist that helped in the discovery of the fossil.

The implications of the discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi

The new Zimbabwean assemblage is on the same palaeolatitudinal climatic belt as other Carnian dinosaur-bearing assemblages and has a similar taxonomic composition (Photo credit: Nature)
The new Zimbabwean assemblage is on the same palaeolatitudinal climatic belt as other Carnian dinosaur-bearing assemblages and has a similar taxonomic composition (Photo credit: Nature)

The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi which is one of the oldest dinosaurs has shed more light on the Triassic era which ended over 200 million years ago. Fossils from the era have been discovered in India, South America, and now Zimbabwe.

The finding beams more light on the migration and evolution of earlier dinosaurs. Speaking to BBC, the deputy director of National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, Darlington Munyikwa, who took part in the discovery said, “Fossils from the Triassic age in the study of early dinosaurs is rare”.

Mr. Munyikwa disclosed that the country was aware of the fossil site for decades. He also noted that there are many similar sites in the area that needed further exploration when funds become available.

Griffin hinted at what the discovery has helped to explain. According to him, the discovery “shows that dinosaurs did not start as dominators of the world”.

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Research curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Christian Kammerer, stressed, “The foremost dinosaurs were tiny—far from the giants that occupy our thoughts”. Kammerer was not part of the study but shared the view with Live Science.

The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fossils also reveals another important piece of information that Griffin pointed out.

“The dinosaurs and the animals that existed mutually with them tend to be confined to a specific type of environment in the far south—what we know today as India, southern Africa, and South America.”

The Triassic lineage

Mbiresaurus raathi
Skeletal anatomy of the Mbiresaurus raathi holotype (NHMZ 2222) and paratype (NHMZ 2547) (Photo credit: Nature)

Scientists are now having a better understanding of the Triassic lineage and how dinosaurs evolved from small creatures to the giant most of us know today.

University of Cape Town paleontologist, Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan told the BBC that Mbiresaurus raathi’s discovery is a vital part of the lineage that gave rise to the sauropod dinosaurs (encompassing brontosaurus and diplodocus).

“It teaches us that during the evolution of dinosaurs, they existed in different continents but seem to trace a hot humid path instead of dry inhospitable environments. Hopefully, we would find more in that area.”

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With the discovery of the new fossils of the Mbiresaurus raathi, Zimbabwe experts now have a new concern. Prof Chinsamy-Turan echoed this sentiment when she told BBC, “I hope there is a strict policy to ensure the handing over of such fossils to the museum to avoid losing the material.”

At the moment, the Mbiresaurus raathi fossil remains are kept in a room in a museum in Bulawayo, a southern city in the country. A University of Edinburgh paleontologist, Steve Brusatte who was not part of the study said,

“Prior to now we almost know nothing about the foremost dinosaurs in Africa. The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi changes everything. It is one of the most important discoveries in recent times about the dinosaur anywhere on the globe.”

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