In a neglected fossil: A vegetarian with bite

This is an artists' rendition of Pegomastax africanus, a 200-million-year-old dinosaur that is the subject of a new peer-reviewed research paper out this week in the journal ZooKeys.

It's a great face, and a fascinating species. Couple of things here that I think are worth highlighting:

First, despite the fang-y teeth Pegomastax africanus is sporting, the scientists who wrote the paper think this animal was actually a vegetarian. Or, at least, mostly a vegetarian. At, the researchers told journalist Charles Q. Choi that the dinosaur had a parrot-like beak, its fangs weren't positioned well for cutting through meat, and its back teeth look like the kind of chompers plant-eaters use to slice through leaves and roughage. All of which suggest Pegomastax africanus ate more seeds, nuts, and fruit than flank steak.

The other cool thing has to do with when Pegomastax africanus was found. While the paper describing the fossil was published online today, the fossil itself was pulled out of the ground in the 1960s. In fact, the paper's main author — paleontologist Paul C. Sereno — first noticed the neglected fossil in 1983, and only recently got around to examining it more closely. Think of it this way, a successful dig might come out with lots of potentially cool rocks and fossils. The fact is that there are often more artifacts than there is time for one team to closely work with all the artifacts. The researchers who did the digging will focus on the ones that are most interesting to them. The rest get catalogued. Maybe the original researchers come back to them; maybe they don't. Maybe somebody else picks up the catalogued fossils; maybe it takes 50 years for that happen. But what this reminds us is that there are cool things waiting to be discovered in storage ... not just in the ground.

Read the full paper, which puts Pegomastax africanus into context as a member of a family of dinosaurs called heterodontosaurids.


  1. I took a “backstage” tour of the american museum of natural history. They have huge blocks of dinosaur fossils that have been sitting in plaster (the way they prepare them in the fireld) for 50 years or more. There just isn’t enough time or money to prepare everything they get!

  2. I’m not familiar with how they store these fossils — AngryJim, above, seems to know more about it than I do — but this seems like a perfect opportunity to exploit 3D scanning technology to put the shapes of fossils, at least, into some kind of digital storage area where other researchers could look at a dig’s haul and start to work with them spatially, or beside any of the other data that is collected in the field or logged during the cataloging procedure. Really, I think I’m ignorant enough of what this type of scientist actually does that I’m focusing in on the jigsaw elements of the process, if that even plays a part. But still, my mind immediately goes to scientists across the country (or schools, even!) downloading models from Thingiverse, printing out all of the fossils from certain digs on 3D printers and assembling the past.

    1. I don’t know anything. ha. But there must be some scientists in the Boingboing community who could address that!

  3. As intriguing as this is, I still need to mention that, like the best things in life, I’m reminded of the artwork of Stephen Gammell, of Scary Stories fame.

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