'Vampire' dinosaur finally revealed
A US-based palaeontologist who discovered a new type of dinosaur in a piece of South African rock in 1983 has left it 29 years to tell the world about his find because he got sidetracked by other projects.
University of Chicago palaeontologist Paul Sereno, who published his findings in the online scientific journal ZooKeys on Wednesday, told reporters he came across the small-bodied herbivore as a graduate student while doing research in Harvard University, and intended to write about it immediately.
“I said, ‘Whoa!’ I realised it was a new species from the moment I set eyes on it,” Mr Sereno said, adding that he then got distracted “by other things” relating to a more ambitious research project.
“There was always a danger that someone would discover it and write about it, and I would read about it,” he reflected.
Named Pegomastax africanus, or “thick jaw from Africa”, by Mr Sereno, the strange-looking species was the weight of a small house cat and less than 30cm high. It lived between 100 million and 200 million years ago in South Africa. “I describe it as a bird, a vampire and a porcupine,” Mr Sereno said.
A single fossil specimen of the species was originally extracted from red rock in the 1960s, but it was not until a young Sereno came across it over two decades later in a Harvard University lab that its significance became apparent.
Nicknamed a “vampire” dinosaur because of its sharp canine-like fangs, the Pegomastax apparently used to dig around for a variety of fruits and plants, as well as for defence.
“[They could inflict] a nipping bite if cornered, using the fangs much like a peccary [type of pig] or fanged deer,” he said.
Mr Sereno, whose research involves mapping the dinosaur family tree, went on to say that the animal had a thick jaw and blunt beak, with a “heightened tooth that sticks down, dagger-like”.
Despite the dinosaur’s small stature, it was very fast for a two-legged creature and used bursts of speed as its main defence against the many predators of the time.
It looks like a nimble two-legged porcupine, concluded Mr Sereno, who said it was a member of one of three groups that form the base of the dinosaur family tree.
Enthusiasts can now see the Pegomastax in great detail in a vivid 3D reconstruction.