Mammal-like reptile lived alongside the dinosaurs
A new species of dicynodont has been discovered in fossils from South Africa, writes Shaun Smillie
Aset of five-toed tracks that cut across Lesotho have long been considered a mystery. They were made hundreds of millions of years ago, and puzzled scientists have dubbed them "phantom footprints" as the animal that left them was regarded as extinct.
But now the mystery may have been solved by a surprise discovery in a museum 8,000km away. Scientists at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have discovered a new species of dicynodont, a mammal-like reptile that had two tusks and a turtle-like beak. They believe a dicynodont might have left the footprints.
What remains baffling is that these prints are intermingled with dinosaur spoor.
"In the years following the discovery of the tracks some scientists argued that they were dicynodonts, but since then they have been largely disregarded," says Christian Kammerer, research curator of palaeontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
"Some recent papers have flat-out said they are not dicynodonts, as they were extinct in SA at this time."
Dicynodonts were believed to have gone extinct by the Late Triassic 210-million years ago, when dinosaurs began to proliferate. But this argument now appears settled following Kammerer’s discovery in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
He was looking for dicynodont fossils and decided to comb the Alfred Brown collection, that had been in the museum since 1876.
"I knew the Brown collections in Vienna were largely unstudied, but there was general agreement that his Late Triassic collections were made up only of dinosaur fossils. To my great surprise, I immediately noticed clear dicynodont jaw and arm bones among these supposed ‘dinosaur’ fossils.
"As I went through this collection I found more and more bones matching a dicynodont instead of a dinosaur, representing parts of the skull, limbs and spinal column."
Brown was an Englishman who had settled in SA and was known by his nickname, Gogga.
"He was called Gogga because he was a bit eccentric, he was buggy," says Kammerer. "Originally it was a derogatory nickname, but later he came to celebrate it and by the early 20th century it was an affectionate name for him among South African palaeontologists."
Brown had a reputation of being a hermit who wandered around SA in the latter part of the 19th century collecting fossils. The eccentric collector tried to get scientists in London and Paris interested in his finds, but he didn’t receive the response he wanted. Eventually, the head of the consulate for the Hungarian Austrian Empire, who was a keen fossil hunter, asked him to send a shipment of his samples to Vienna.
"In exchange, they said they would make him an international fellow of the Royal Geographical society of Austria," says Kammerer.
But Brown’s collection of fossils was soon forgotten about by staff at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
"I think he just really wanted correspondence with scientists. He did not receive this and became even more bitter and introverted," says Kammerer. "It was only in the early 1900s, when he was an old man, that scientists in SA worked their way into his good graces and researched his extensive private museum." Brown died in 1920.
Wits University palaeontologist Bruce Rubidge says this discovery is very important for SA.
"We have opened up his new avenue of research, now we need to get out there into the rocks and find more. In SA we now have the oldest fossils of dicynodonts and the youngest."
Rubidge says more fossils will reveal what the animal looked like and its distribution.
Kammerer intends to find the exact location where Brown discovered his Dicynodont more than a century ago.
Brown kept an extensive diary and recorded that he found the specimen in a river cutting about 24km south of his home in Aliwal North. Kammerer also plans to search the storage rooms and collections of South African museums and universities to see if he can find bones belonging to the new species.
Gogga Brown has finally been given recognition from scientists. The new species has been named Pentasaurus goggai — Gogga’s five-toed lizard.