Earliest Dinosaur Discovered In London: Scientists Find 245 Million Year Old Fossil

By Danny Choy on December 5, 2012 8:17 AM EST

dinosaur Nyasasaurus
Artist rendering of Nyasasaurus parringtoni, the earliest dinosaur or the closest dinosaur relative yet discovered. (Photo: Reuters/Natural History Museum)

Scientists believe they have discovered the fossil that belongs to the earliest known dinosaur to walk the Earth.

An unknown fossil has been archived in the corridors of London's Natural History Museum for decades. Now dusted off by a team of researchers, studies show evidence that the mysterious fossil could have once been a dinosaur that lived 245 million years ago. In fact, this specimen is a significant 10 to 15 million years earlier than any other dinosaur fossil ever recorded.

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The fossil is about as large as a Labrador Retriever. Named Nyasasaurus parringtoni, the fossil was discovered in southern Africa's Lake Nyasa, known as Lake Malawi today, by Rex Parrington of Cambridge University, who collected fossils at the site in the 1930s. Researchers believe Nyasasaurus stood upright, was a meter tall at the hip, no more than 3 meters long from head to tail, and weighed between 20 to 60 kg.

London Natural History Museum's Paul Barrett said, "It was a case of looking at the material with a fresh pair of eyes. This closes a gap in the fossil record and pushes back the existence of dinosaurs."

Studied in the 1950s, researchers failed to make out just what exactly were they dealing with. Nothing was published. Barrett said, "It was a mystery what it was ... It just became this mythical animal."

Modern methods of research allowed scientists to crack the fossil's secrets. Specifically, two features of the fossil, along with another similar fossil sample found at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, was enough to prove the fossils belonged to a dinosaur, or at least a close relative.

First, bone tissues in the upper arm exhibit signs of rapid growth, a common trait among dinosaurs. What's more, scientists also identified an elongated deltopectoral crest that anchored the upper arm muscles, a feature exclusive among dinosaurs.

Barrett explained, "Although we only know Nyasasaurus from fossil fragments, the anatomy of its upper arm bone and hips have features that are unique to dinosaurs, making us confident that we're dealing with an animal very close to dinosaur origin."

When Nyasasaurus roamed the land 245 million years ago, the world's continents were still joined as an incredible landmass known as Pangaea. The fossil, found at what is called Tanzania today, would have been southern Pangaea hundreds of millions of years ago. Southern Pangaea consisted of Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia.

Scientists are continuing research to unlock new secrets from this old fossil specimen. Seattle's University of Washington's Sterling Nesbitt, the lead researcher conducting the fossil study, says, "If the newly named Nyasasaurus parringtoni is not the earliest dinosaur, then it is the closest relative found so far.

"What's really neat about this specimen is that it has a lot of history. Found in the '30s, first described in the 1950s ... Now 80 years later, we're putting it all together."

At this time, researchers plan to conduct further field work at the Tanzania site in order to identify more fossils in order to better understand the ancient dinosaur's anatomy.

[Source: Reuters]

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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