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New Dinosaur Species Discovered After Laying ‘Misidentified’ in Fossil Vault for 30 Years

The remarkably preserved skull, now named Ngwevu intloko, has been in a fossil vault for over 30 years, but was misidentified. It’s actually a new species of early dinosaur. (Photo Credit: Jonah Choiniere)

A PhD student has made an amazing discovery in her own university’s vaults — a new species of early dinosaur has been laying misidentified in a collection for 30 years.

Scientists, led by Kimberley Chapelle of University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, recognized that the dinosaur was not only a new species of sauropodomorph, but an entirely new genus, according to a news release from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The specimen, which is described in the academic journal PeerJ, has now been named Ngwevu intloko, which means “grey skull” in the Xhosa language, to honor South Africa’s heritage.

Micro-CT scan of Ngwevu intloko skull. (Photo Credit: Kimberley Chapelle/Wits University)

“This is a new dinosaur that has been hiding in plain sight,” said Professor Paul Barrett, Chappelle’s supervisor and a researcher at the Natural History Museum in the UK. “The specimen has been in the collections in Johannesburg for about 30 years, and lots of other scientists have already looked at it. But they all thought that it was simply an odd example of Massospondylus.”

Massospondylus was one of the first dinosaurs to reign at the start of the Jurassic period, according to the Natural History Museum. Regularly found throughout southern Africa, these animals belonged to a group called the sauropodomorphs and eventually gave rise to the sauropods, a group containing the Museum’s iconic Diplodocus dinosaur cast, Dippy. Researchers are now looking closer at many of these supposed Massospondylus specimens, believing things may not have been so straightforward.

“In order to be certain that a fossil belongs to a new species, it is crucial to rule out the possibility that it is a younger or older version of an already existing species,” said Chapelle. “This is a difficult task to accomplish with fossils because it is rare to have a complete age series of fossils from a single species. Luckily, the most common South African dinosaur Massospondylus has specimens ranging from embryo to adult. Based on this, we were able to rule out age as a possible explanation for the differences we observed in the specimen now named Ngwevu intloko.”

According to the Natural History Museum, the new dinosaur is known from a single fairly complete specimen whose skull and much of its skeleton are remarkably well preserved.

A good deal of the rest of the dinosaur’s skeleton also got fossilized. (Photo Credit: Kimberley Chapelle/Wits University)

N. intloko was bipedal and had a fairly chunky body, with a long slender neck and a small, boxy head. It would have been a relatively small dinosaur, measuring perhaps more than 9 feet (3 meters) from the tip of its snout to the end of its tail.

While it likely ate some plants, it may also have taken any small animals that were unable to escape its path. It would have been quite different from the large, plant-munching sauropods that came much later in the Jurassic, the Museum said.

The findings will help scientists better understand the transition between the Triassic and Jurassic period, around 200 million years ago. Known as a time of mass extinction, it now seems that more complex ecosystems were flourishing in the earliest Jurassic than previously thought.

The newly discovered Ngwevu intloko would have looked similar to the Massospondylus seen here, with a fairly chunky body and a long, slender neck (Credit: Nobu Tamura/ Wikimedia Commons)

“This new species is interesting because we thought previously that there was really only one type of sauropodomorph living in South Africa at this time,” said Barrett. “We now know there were actually six or seven of these dinosaurs in this area, as well as variety of other dinosaurs from less common groups. It means that their ecology was much more complex than we used to think. Some of these other sauropodomorphs were like Massospondylus, but a few were close to the origins of true sauropods, if not true sauropods themselves.”

Barrett and other scientists expect that many specimens previously identified as Massospondylus may well end up being either N. intloko or even some other new species in their own right. And it could also encourage researchers to revisit specimens sitting unnoticed in museum collections and vaults around the world.

Read the full paper on Ngwevu intloko here.

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