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 LiveScience.com, 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.

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