Fossilized footprints reveal new megatherapod species

A set of ancient footprints reveal that megatherapods once roamed through what is now southern Africa.
By Joseph Scalise | Oct 27, 2017
Ancient footprints found in what is now southern Africa are the first evidence that large, T. rex-like predators once roamed the area.

The prints -- which were discovered by a team of international researchers -- come from a newly discovered predatory dinosaur known as Kayentapus ambrokholohali. The gigantic beast measured 30 feet long and lived roughly 200 million years ago during the early Jurassic period. It belonged to a group of dinosaurs known as therapods -- large meat eaters that typically walked on two legs and had sharp teeth.

Researchers are interested in the fossils because, until now, they assumed that a group of large therapods known as megatheropods had not yet evolved in the early Jurassic. Most found from that time period only grew between 10 and 16 feet long. As a result, the new evidence pushes back their evolution by 55 million years, Newsweek reports.

While the prints are exciting, K. ambrokholohali left no bones behind. That means scientists can only look at "trace fossils" that simply prove the ancient creature's existence. Even so, the footprints are significant because they are quite rare. It takes a specific set of geological processes for such fossils to last hundreds of millions of years.

"The latest discovery is very exciting and sheds new light on the kind of carnivore that roamed what is now southern Africa," said study co-author Fabien Knoll, a researcher from the University of Manchester, in astatement. "That's because it is the first evidence of an extremely large meat-eating animal roaming a landscape otherwise dominated by a variety of herbivorous, omnivorous and much smaller carnivorous dinosaurs. It really would have been top of the food chain."

While scientists only have K. ambrokholohali's footprints, they can assume more about the mysterious dinosaur. For example, they can compare it to other therapods and makescientific guesses that it looked and acted like similar species.

However, there are still many gaps that need to be filled in. Behaviors do not fossilize. Neither does soft tissue. As a result, there is no way to know how much fatK. ambrokholohali had, its colors, or even if it had feathers. However, there is no doubt the finding is significant. The tracks shed light on a new species and could help scientists better understand how ancient carnivores evolved over time.

"This discovery marks the first occurrence of very large carnivorous dinosaurs in the Early Jurassic of southern Gondwana the prehistoric continent which would later break up and become Africa and other landmasses," said lead author Lara Sciscio, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town, according to International Business Times. "This makes it a significant find. Globally, these large tracks are very rare. There is only one other known site similar in age and sized tracks, which is in Poland."

The results are publishedin thejournal PLOS One.

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