Scientists have finally identified a bizarre tiny dinosaur that had vampire-like fangs, a parrot beak, and porcupine bristles, 50 years after it was found in southern Africa.
The ancient creature drew little attention until now and may help shed light on the evolution of the major group of dinosaurs, which included giants like the Stegosaurus and Triceratops, reports CBS News.
The dinosaur is about 200 million years old, and researcher Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, states that it “was two-legged, probably fleet-footed, and had grasping hands.”
The bizarre creature has been named Pegomastax africanus (thick jaw from Africa). When it lived, it was less than two feet long and weighed 15 pounds at most, making it smaller than your average house cat. Sereno adds that the dinosaur was “mostly tail and neck.”
Bristles resembling porcupine quills may have been spread across most of the creature’s body. Scientists say that the earliest findings of bristles like this were in a relative named the Tianyulong, which was recently discovered in China. The Tianyulong was buried in lake sediments and covered by volcanic ash, helping to preserve the creature’s bristles, which covered its body from its neck to the tip of its tail.
When speaking of the newly discovered dinosaur, Sereno stated:
“It would have looked a bit like a two-legged porcupine, covered in these weird, funky, quill-like things. The bristles were not quite as strong as a porcupine’s, and they don’t look as if they were especially effective for insulation. Perhaps they had colors and helped differentiate species, or made Pegomastaxlook bigger than it actually was to potential predators.”
National Geographic notes that Sereno believes the tiny dinosaur’s fangs were more like those of fanged deer or water chevrotain, which are modern-day, plant-eating mammals that only use their teeth for self-defense and foraging.
The species would most likely have lived near forested rivers in Southern Africa, around the time the Pangea began to split in to northern and southern landmasses.
Hans-Dieter Sues, a vertebrate paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has stated that finding a new species of heterdontosaur is not “all that noteworthy.” He adds, howevert:
“But [Sereno’s] comprehensive review of the entire group of these odd little dinosaurs is a landmark contribution.”
Seus is also impressed that Sereno “worked out how these dinosaurs chewed their food, which helps understand their peculiar, molar-like teeth.”
When talking about what it would be like if the small, bizarre dinosaur lived today, Sereno joked that “it would be a nice pet—if you could train it not to nip you.”