New dinosaur species may be a missing link

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa – Before the dig started, it looked like any other patch of dinosaur dirt: gray soil, a few brownish fossilized bones exposed by erosion. Paleontologist Adam Yates thought his diggers would find a few bones from the massospondylus — South Africa’s most common dinosaur, a small omnivorous creature not much bigger than a large dog.

So the Australian paleontologist at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg initially assigned a master’s student to excavate the site and research the story of how the dinosaurs died. But within days back in 2006, it was clear they were onto something big. In about 11 weeks spread over the years since, Yates’ team excavated about 300 bones from a site just over 20 feet long and 9 feet wide. They discovered three new dinosaurs and the fangs of a mysterious dinosaur carnivore, probably a fourth new species. The first to be named and researched is Aardonyx celestae. The others are still being studied.

What makes Aardonyx celestae so exciting is that the species, like a crucial piece in a complicated jigsaw puzzle, helps explain how some of the earliest dinosaurs, two-legged herbivores known as prosauropods, evolved into the largest creatures that ever walked the Earth: the sauropods, four-legged creatures with long necks and small heads that ripped off tree foliage with their cavernous jaws.

Yates doesn’t like the term “missing link.” It upsets his scientific sensibilities, because evolution does not unfold in a neat linear fashion. But he says the term does at least convey the significance of the discovery. “It’s one of the dinosaurs in a long, smeary continuum,” he said today. “It shows us what we should already have pretty much guessed, which was that evolution was a messy complicated affair.”

The scientists found two Aardonyx specimens at Spion Hill in Free State, neither of them adult. The smaller of the two — a more complete set of bones — was about 7 years old, about 23 feet long and 6 feet high at the hip. An adult might have grown to 50 feet and weighed half a ton, Yates said.

His eyes lighted up today as he talked about dinosaurs, bones and evolution. Although he was in the 21st century at a news conference pointing at slides with a red laser pen and wearing a radio mike, it was easy to imagine him a couple of centuries ago, striding over the limestone and shale cliffs of Lyme Regis, the famous paleontology site in southern England where “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles was based.

He confessed a little sheepishly that he initially overlooked the site. You could barely sink a hammer into the fossil-rich Karoo Basin in eastern South Africa without hitting massospondylus bones; the last thing he wanted to do was dig up something ordinary.  “They’re very common and I really wasn’t interested in digging up a lot of massospondylus bones,” Yates recalled. “We had other exciting sites.” But he was there to supervise on day one in 2006, when the master’s student, Marc Blackbeard, and other volunteers started to dig. As they chipped away, they pulled out bones by the dozen — far bigger than those of a massospondylus.

His voice rose in excitement when remembering that day: He was rushing around, too busy even to dig, as volunteer students kept producing extraordinary bones, asking him to tell him what they’d found. “As soon as we started opening up, we realized it was very densely packed,” he said. “We kept on finding bone after bone. You start to say, ‘This doesn’t add up. It’s not what I thought it is.’ Pretty much within the first few days I was clear that it was a new type of dinosaur.”

Aardonyx, or earth’s claw, is a reference to the concrete-like stone in which the fossils were embedded at Spion Kop, one of South Africa’s richest dinosaur sites. Celeste is Yates’ wife, a paleontology preparator who had the unpleasant task of chipping the stone from the fossils.

U.S. paleobiologist and functional morphologist Matt Bonnan of West Illinois University, who took part in the project sponsored by National Geographic, studies bones to find out how dinosaurs moved and lived. “This find is very significant because Aardonyx is a transition animal,” he said. “It’s a close cousin of the sauropod dinosaurs. It gives us a window on what was happening very early on in the evolution of those giants.”

Bonnan describes Aardonyx celestae as a lumbering creature with a large belly and chest, like the huge sauropods that came later. Like those animals, it ate huge quantities of foliage. The prosauropods, smaller grazing animals evolved to run, dominated the landscape when Aardonyx lived. Aardonyx exemplifies why dinosaurs evolved from bipeds to quadrupeds. Lush vegetation allowed them to eat more; they evolved into larger animals. But their huge bellies made balancing on two legs difficult, so they dropped onto their smaller front legs, eventually evolving into heavy quadrupeds.

The scientists’ hypothesis was that the Spion Kop area was once a lush, wet oasis edged by a vast desert — hence the different kinds of dinosaurs found there. They believe the animals may have died during a drought, possibly at the edge of a dry water hole.

At some point, carnivore X — an unknown mystery carnivore — ate the dead or dying Aardonyx. Several fangs were found on the scene, and they’re not like other dinosaur teeth from the same era. But with just a few teeth to go on, carnivore X is another missing piece of the dinosaur evolution puzzle. “I’d very much like to find the bones of the mysterious carnivore X,” Yates said. “Its teeth are intriguing, teeth like dinosaurs that don’t appear until much later.” He hopes more digging in the area might uncover the carnivore. “That’s the joy of paleontology,” he said. “There’s something out there. We have to go out there and find it.”

new dino found. an interesting story as they’ve found the part that connects two sets of generations of dinosaurs. and naming it after his wife? that’s kind of romantic. my dear – what would u like me to name after u? my car? haha… article from Los Angeles Times.

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