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A Tiny New Dino

Paleontologists discover a spiky cat-sized dinosaur previously unknown to science.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

Pegomastax africanus measured less than two feet long, had vampire-likefangs, and ate only plants. (Tyler Keillor) 
Fossils of this unusual dinosaur were discovered in 1960 but were only recently identified and described. (Tyler Keillor)

A new species of dinosaur has been identified—and it sure was tiny. The Pegomastax africanus , or “thick jaw from Africa,” was less than two feet long and lighter than a housecat. It roamed Earth about 200 million years ago.

Pegomastax was originally found in the 1960s, embedded in some South African rocks. But it was never identified or studied. University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno recently rediscovered it in a collection of fossils at Harvard University. He named it and published a description of the unusual and forgotten fossil.

The mini dinosaur had a one-inch jaw and a small, parrot-shaped head and beak. Although it had vampire-like fangs, it ate only plants.

“[It’s] very rare that a plant-eater like Pegomastax would sport sharp-edged, enlarged canines,” Sereno says.

MINI SURVIVORS

Pegomastax is part of a family called heterodontosaurs, or “different-toothed reptiles.” Heterodontosaurs were some of the first dinosaurs in existence. Triceratops and Stegosaurus , which lived later, were part of the same family.

Pegomastax spent its days scampering around in search of plants and fruit. It used its sharp teeth, long legs, and speed to defend itself against other dinosaurs. Although scientists don’t know which carnivores preyed on Pegomastax , they do know that the tiny dino lived alongside much larger plant-eaters, like the Massospondylus . Some of these dinosaurs weighed at least a ton.

Porcupine-like bristles covering most of Pegomastax ’s body helped with self-defense.

“I think the bristles would have made it look at least a little bigger than it was,” Sereno told Discovery News . “Perhaps they could poke out more strongly when excited.” Bristles like these were first seen in another heterodontosaur called Tianyulong , recently discovered in China.

“These plant-eaters are among the very oldest we know from the bird-hipped side of the dinosaur tree,” Sereno told Discovery News . “They started out small, and some of them got a bit smaller, to be among the smallest dinosaurs we know.”


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