Oldest dinosaur in Africa discovered in Zimbabwe - study

The research that went into these discoveries was published on Wednesday in Nature. Mbiresaurus was a sauropodomorph, a long-necked dinosaur, and is estimated to have been about six feet tall.

Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal assemblage in the background, including two rhynchosaurs (front right), an aetosaur (left), and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (back right). (photo credit: ANDREY ATUCHIN)
Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal assemblage in the background, including two rhynchosaurs (front right), an aetosaur (left), and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (back right).
(photo credit: ANDREY ATUCHIN)

New findings have revealed that dinosaur fossils found over the course of two digs (2017 and 2019) is the oldest dinosaur found in Africa to date. 

The remains of the newly-named Mbiresaurus raathi were first discovered by a then-graduate student at Virginia Tech Christopher Griffin, who graduated in 2020 with a Ph.D. from the Department of Geosciences, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

"When I found the femur of Mbiresaurus, I immediately recognized it as belonging to a dinosaur, and I knew I was holding the oldest dinosaur ever found in Africa."

Christopher Griffin

Sterling Nesbitt, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, says, “early dinosaurs like Mbiresaurus raathi show that the early evolution of dinosaurs is still being written with each new find and the rise of dinosaurs was far more complicated than previously predicted."

The research that went into these discoveries was published on Wednesday in Nature. Mbiresaurus was a sauropodomorph, a long-necked dinosaur, and is estimated to have been about six feet tall with a long tail.

 ] Christopher Griffin works at uncovering fossils buried in the ground in northern Zimbabwe in 2017. (credit: Murphy Allen for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech) ] Christopher Griffin works at uncovering fossils buried in the ground in northern Zimbabwe in 2017. (credit: Murphy Allen for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech)

Griffin explained, “These are Africa’s oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world. The oldest known dinosaurs — from roughly 230 million years ago, the Carnian Stage of the Late Triassic period — are extremely rare and have been recovered from only a few places worldwide, mainly northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and India.”

What did this new ancient dinosaur look like?

The Mbiresaurus raathi, named for the district Mbire where it was found and paleontologist Michael Raath who first reported fossils in northern Zimbabwe, was found among several other Carnian-age fossils from the mid-Triassic period of the Mesozoid era. The dinosaur was likely a herbivore or omnivore given its small, serrated triangle-shaped teeth. It stood on two legs and had a small head

 Christopher Griffin holds in his hand portion of the lower jaw of Mbiresaurus in Virginia Tech’s Derring Hall. (credit: Zach Murphy for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech) Christopher Griffin holds in his hand portion of the lower jaw of Mbiresaurus in Virginia Tech’s Derring Hall. (credit: Zach Murphy for the Paleobiology & Geobiology Research Group at Virginia Tech)

“We never expected to find such a complete and well-preserved dinosaur skeleton,” said Griffin, now a post-doctorate researcher at Yale University.

“When I found the femur of Mbiresaurus, I immediately recognized it as belonging to a dinosaur, and I knew I was holding the oldest dinosaur ever found in Africa. When I kept digging and found the left hipbone right next to the left thighbone, I had to stop and take a breath — I knew that a lot of the skeleton was probably there, still articulated together in life position,” he added. 

What are the implications for dinosaur habitat and migration data?

This discovery led researchers to new theories regarding dinosaur migration. Like all continents, Africa was once part of the supercontinent Pangea. Scientists previously believed that animal distribution and migration across the supercontinent were constrained by temperature, with the lower regions of Pangea having hotter, more tropical climates.  

“Because dinosaurs initially dispersed under this climatic pattern, the early dispersal of dinosaurs should therefore have been controlled by latitude,” Griffin said. “The oldest dinosaurs are known from roughly the same ancient latitudes along the southern temperate climate belt what was at the time, approximately 50 degrees south.”

New research indicates that the earliest dinosaurs like Mbiresauris raathi were confined to southern Pangea and only began to disperse worldwide later on in history

Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe

“This is such an exciting and important dinosaur find for Zimbabwe, and we Moira Fitzpatrick, director of the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe

This discovery is a stroke of luck for the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe.  

“The discovery of the Mbiresaurus is an exciting and special find for Zimbabwe and the entire paleontological field,” said Michel Zondo, a curator and fossil preparer at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe.

“The fact that the Mbiresaurus skeleton is almost complete, makes it a perfect reference material for further finds. It is the first sauropodomorph find of its size from Zimbabwe, otherwise most of our sauropodomorph finds from here are usually of medium to large-sized animals,” he added. 

“This is such an exciting and important dinosaur find for Zimbabwe, and we have been watching the scientific process unfold with great pride,” said Moira Fitzpatrick, the museum’s director, who was not involved in the study itself. “It has been a pleasure to work with Dr. Griffin and we hope the relationship will continue well into the future.”