Few prehistoric creatures generate as much excitement and awe as dinosaurs. Whether it’s the “tyrant” T-Rex or a slender-necked Brachiosaurus, people are fascinated by these creatures that once dominated landscapes around the world – including across the African continent – there are hundreds of millions of years.
The dinosaurs are long gone (although we are still surrounded by their direct descendants, the birds). But researchers are still working hard to piece together the fossil record to create a more complete picture of how dinosaurs lived, walked, ate and raised their young. Their findings offer insight into ancient landscapes, helping modern scientists better understand today’s climates and ecosystems.
The Conversation Africa featured a number of dinosaur finds on the continent. Here are five essential readings:
A rich file
Africa is widely recognized as the cradle of humanity. But less attention is paid to its incredibly varied fossil record. Many of the planet’s most important life forms are native to the continent: bacteria-like organisms; many species of dinosaurs and, of course, primates – including humans. Even the continent’s rocks are among the oldest in the world. Some of them date back more than three billion years.
This is what prompted Julien Benoit to create a program for his paleontology students centered on the discoveries of African fossils rather than discoveries elsewhere in the world.
Read more: Rich fossil finds in Africa should get the airtime they deserve
Hidden in plain sight
Many museums and universities maintain extensive collections of fossils. Their contents have been studied, labeled and cataloged. Sometimes, however, they hold secrets that can only be uncovered through a combination of scientific intuition and advanced technology. This is how Kimberley EJ Chapelle discovered and described an entirely new species: Ngwevu Intloko (“grey skull” in isiXhosa).
Read more: A fossil hidden in plain sight in South Africa turns out to be a new dinosaur
A giant African dinosaur
Researchers are constantly rewriting the fossil record with new discoveries. Fossilized dinosaur footprints are a useful tool for this work, as evidenced by a – literally – gigantic find in Lesotho.
The ancient landscapes of southern Africa were previously thought to be dominated by small, agile two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods. But Lara Sciscio and her colleagues’ study in Lesotho unexpectedly found that very large carnivorous dinosaurs with an estimated body length of between 8 and 9 meters (or 26 feet) – that’s a two-story building or two nose-to-tail adult rhinos – lived in the area too.
Read more: Meet the giant dinosaur that roamed southern Africa 200 million years ago
Findings of footprints
Still on the subject of footprints, it turns out that fossilized dinosaur footprints contain incredible detail about more than just the size and shape of the creature that made them. As Miengah Abrahams explains, they can reveal which organism created the tracks – different animals have different shapes of footprints. They offer clues to the creature’s behavior and may even contain evidence of the type of environment the dinosaurs roamed in – did they burrow into wet sand or stand firmly on dry gravel?
Read more: Footprints brings science closer to understanding southern African dinosaurs
A piece full of teeth
Going from feet to teeth: Dinosaur biters hold important clues about their lives, their diets and how they moved through landscapes. That’s why Femke Holwerda ventured into the beds of Kem Kem, a geological formation in North Africa, in search of fossil dinosaur teeth. His findings allowed him to create a more complete picture of the long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs, called sauropods, of the Lower Cretaceous period in North Africa.
Read more: What we learned from dinosaur teeth in North Africa