A new find by palaeontologists in southern Africa may just have discovered the oldest dinosaur known to man. The find, which researchers are describing as having significant evolutionary importance, have been dated at being 10 to 15 million years older than the earliest fossils found to date, helping to explain what palaeontologists are calling an "evolutionary gap."
Researchers from the University of Washington, the University of California Berkeley and the Natural History Museum of the UK discovered one upper arm bone and six vertebrae belonging to Nyasasaurus parringtoni, a dinosaur two to three meters long and weighing between 20 and 60 kilograms, which roamed the southern parts of the primordial supercontinent Pangea (now South America, Africa, Antarctica and Australia).
Publishing their work in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers stated that N parringtoni represented the first group of dinosaurs who helped to establish the specie but who had not yet dominated the primeval world. Speaking about the find, Prof. Paul Barrett said, “Those animals were the earliest of this group that led up toward dinosaurs. Now this takes dinosaurs back to the right kind of time when those two groups would have split apart from each other,” adding that, “We push the origin of dinosaurs further back in time to a time when lots of reptile groups are evolving. Dinosaurs start out as a very insignificant group of reptiles—all relatively small animals, relatively rare in comparison with other reptile groups—and it's only a bit later in their history that they suddenly explode and take over as the dominant forms of life for nearly 100 million years."
N parringtoni was first discovered in Lake Malawi in Tanzania, in southern Africa, and though the present study does not make any definitive claims about the dinosaurs status as the earliest known as the researchers do not possess a complete fossil, the find does nonetheless provide clear evidence as to the evolution of the great reptiles, something that had been missing key evidence until the recent find.
What pointed the researchers to conclude that N parringtoni was indeed a dinosaur ancestor was, what the researchers refer to as its "elongated deltopectoral crest" which acted as an anchor for the dinosaur’s pectoral muscles. This was key to determining the relation between N parringtoni and later dinosaurs because while not being the dominant specie around, N parringtoni existed at a time when numerous other reptiles roamed Pangea.