|The skull and a restoration of Pegomastax africanus|
Like so many important finds, it languished in the backrooms of a museum, in this case Harvard, until Paul Sereno, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago stumbled upon it. It was immediately clear that it was something new. By the end of his analysis, he had come up with a creature which, to put things simply, would have looked like a vampire fanged, parrot beaked, two legged, reptilian porcupine the size of a house cat weighing in at less than 7 kilograms.
Of course, scientific names often reflect the characteristics of their organism. Tyrannosaurus rex translates as 'tyrant lizard king,' apt considering its nature as a top predator. Despite all of this newcomer's odd features, it was given the rather colloquial name of Pegomastax africanus which translates as 'thick jaw from Africa.' Yet, while its name is ordinary, its revelations about the evolution of dinosaurs is not.
|A comparison between an adult human and Pegomastax africanus|
Its skull was also a mine of information. Its size showed that it was not a carnivore and while it was nimble, it was still not fast enough to catch insects. The beak was most likely used to nip off and crack open nuts and seeds. While the fangs on the other hand were not sharp, but slid past each other as the jaws closed, creating a slicing surface akin to a pair of scissors. These would have been perfect in cutting through everything from tough, fibrous plant stems to leaves.
Yet the real discovery comes when the creature is placed in the tree of life. Pegomastax is close to the base of the ornithischians, one of the two main groups of dinosaurs, the other being the saurischians. The two groups split away from each other during the early Triassic. Current analysis suggests that Pegomastax played a very important part in this event.
The empire of the dinosaurs stretched from the seasonal north to the deserts on the equator for nearly 200 million years. What remains of this empire now lies beneath our feet, ground down into the soil or entombed in the rocks of the continents. Our knowledge of dinosaurs increases daily, bringing their lost world into the light.