Scientists discover new dinosaur species in Zimbabwe: Meet Musankwa Sanyatiensis

Artist reconstruction of Musankwa sanyatiensis, walking in Triassic shallow waters past a metoposaur. Credit: Atashni Moopen

Fossils found on the shoreline of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe have led to the discovery of a completely new dinosaur species.

Named Musankwa sanyatiensis, this remarkable find is only the fourth dinosaur species ever named from Zimbabwe.

The research detailing this significant discovery is published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.

An international team of scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, Stony Brook University in New York, and the Natural History Museum in London conducted the study.

The team was led by Prof Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London.

Musankwa sanyatiensis is particularly significant as it is the first dinosaur to be named from the Mid-Zambezi Basin of northern Zimbabwe in over 50 years.

This dinosaur is represented by the remains of a single hind leg, including its thigh, shin, and ankle bones. The rocks containing this specimen date back to the Late Triassic period, about 210 million years ago.

“Despite the limited fossil material, these bones possess unique features that distinguish them from those of other dinosaurs living at the same time,” says Dr. Kimberley “Kimi” Chapelle, assistant professor at Stony Brook University.

The name Musankwa sanyatiensis honors the houseboat “Musankwa,” which served as the research team’s home and mobile laboratory during their expeditions to Lake Kariba in 2017 and 2018. “Musankwa” means “boy close to marriage” in the Tonga dialect.

The evolutionary analysis reveals that Musankwa sanyatiensis was a member of the Sauropodomorpha, a group of bipedal, long-necked dinosaurs that were widespread during the Late Triassic. This dinosaur appears to be closely related to contemporaries found in South Africa and Argentina. Weighing around 390 kg, Musankwa sanyatiensis was a plant-eater and one of the larger dinosaurs of its time.

Africa has a long history of dinosaur discoveries, with the first dinosaur in the southern hemisphere found in South Africa just three years after the term “dinosaur” was coined in 1842.

However, most known dinosaur fossils have been found in only a few countries, mainly in the northern hemisphere. This has led to a limited representation of African dinosaur diversity in the global fossil record.

“The main reason for the underrepresentation of African dinosaur fossils is ‘undersampling,'” says Barrett. “There have been fewer people looking for and unearthing dinosaurs compared to other regions of the world.”

Despite fewer discoveries, many African fossils are historically and scientifically significant. These include some of the oldest dinosaurs, like Nyasasaurus parringtoni from Tanzania and Mbiresaurus raathi from Zimbabwe.

The Late Triassic-Early Jurassic sediments of Zimbabwe are crucial for understanding the End-Triassic extinction, a catastrophic event that dramatically reshaped Earth’s biodiversity around 200 million years ago.

This new dinosaur species highlights the untapped potential of the region for further paleontological discoveries. Barrett explains, “Over the last six years, many new fossil sites have been recorded in Zimbabwe, yielding a diverse array of prehistoric animals.”

As more fossil sites are explored and excavated, there is hope for uncovering further significant finds that will shed light on the early evolution of dinosaurs and the ecosystems they lived in.

“Based on where it sits on the dinosaur family tree, Musankwa sanyatiensis is the first dinosaur of its kind from Zimbabwe,” says Dr. Kimi Chapelle.

“It highlights the potential of the region for further paleontological discoveries.”