SBU Paleontologist Part of Team to Identify New Dinosaur Species 

Kimberley Chapelle helped discover and identify the find, named Musankwa sanyatiensis

Zimbabwe dinosaur bone
Musankwa sanyatiensis leg bones as they were discovered in the ground on Spurwing Island, Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe. Credit: Paul Barrett

Long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs known as sauropodomorphs — a group of mainly bipedal dinosaurs that lived some 210 million years ago in the Late Triassic — provide a common image of the age of dinosaurs in the minds of people. Now, a completely new sauropodomorph species has been identified, which is only the fourth dinosaur species discovered in Zimbabwe.

Kimberley (Kimi) Chapelle, assistant professor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences in the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, is part of an international team of scientists that discovered and identified the find, named Musankwa sanyatiensis. A paper describing the fossil and details about the dinosaur is published in Acta Palaeontologica PolonicaThe study is led by Professor Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum of London. Co-authors include Chapelle from Stony Brook University and researchers from Wits University in South Africa and the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe.

The discovery of Musankwa sanyatiensis is particularly significant as it is the first dinosaur to be named from the Mid-Zambezi Basin of northern Zimbabwe in more than 50 years. The fossil follows only these previous dinosaur discoveries in the region: “Syntarsus” rhodesiensis in 1969, Vulcanodon karibaensis in 1972 and Mbiresaurus raathi in 2022.

Musankwa sanyatiensis is represented by the remains of a single hind leg, including its thigh, shin and ankle bones.

An evolutionary analysis reveals that Musankwa sanyatiensis was a member of the Sauropodomorpha, which were widespread during the Late Triassic. The dinosaur appears to be closely related to contemporaries in South Africa and Argentina. Weighing in at around 390 kilograms or about 850 pounds, the plant-eating Musankwa sanyatiensis was one of the larger dinosaurs of its era. Scientists say the dinosaur dwelled mostly in swamp areas.

“Despite the limited fossil material, these bones possess unique features that distinguish them from those of other dinosaurs living at the same time,” said Chapelle, who helped excavate the specimen and was present at the field site on the day when Musankwa sanyatiensis was discovered in 2018.

Once the fossil had been micro-CT scanned, she processed the data and did the digital reconstructions of Musankwa sanyatiensis. Chapelle also assisted in describing the dinosaur and determining its position on the dinosaur family tree through phylogenetic analysis.

The fossil was named Musankwa sanyatiensis after the houseboat “Musankwa.” In the Tonga dialect, “Musankwa” means “boy close to marriage.” This vessel served as the research team’s home and mobile laboratory during two field expeditions to Lake Kariba in 2017 and 2018.

The discovery highlights untapped potential of the region for further paleontological discoveries

Dinosaur details
Musankwa sanyatiensis fossil bones in situ, after mechanical preparation and after CT scanning. Artist reconstruction of Musankwa sanyatiensis showing position of fossil bones. Credit: Barrett et al. 2024, Atashni Moopen

While Africa itself has a long history of dinosaur discoveries, there have been few in Zimbabwe and in that region of the continent. Lead author Barrett explains that the likely reason for this is “undersampling,” as fewer paleontologists have searched though the region compared to other regions in countries around the world.

“Over the last six years, many new fossil sites have been recorded in Zimbabwe, yielding a diverse array of prehistoric animals, including the first sub-Saharan mainland African phytosaurs (ancient crocodile-like reptiles), metoposaurid amphibians (giant armoured amphibians), lungfish, and other reptile remains,” noted Barrett.

“Based on where it sits on the dinosaur family tree, Musanwka sanyantiensis is the first dinosaur of its kind from Zimbabwe,” added Chapelle. “It, therefore, highlights the potential of the region for further paleontological discoveries.”

The authors believe that as more fossil sites are explored and excavated, there is hope for uncovering further significant finds in Zimbabwe and other regions that will shed light on the early evolution of dinosaurs and the ecosystems they inhabited.

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