Welcome to the fascinating world of dinosaurs in South Africa! Embark on a journey through time as we explore the rich paleontological heritage of this captivating country. South Africa boasts a diverse array of dinosaur species, each with its unique story. From massive predators to towering herbivores to tiny, bird-like carnivores, let’s delve into the extraordinary fossils that have unveiled the prehistoric wonders of this southern African nation.
Understanding the Geological Layers and Times
As the Middle Triassic period rolled in, Pangea broke apart, giving rise to two new continents: Laurasia north of the equator and Gondwana in the south. This breakup brought more humidity to the once-arid interior regions of the landmass. The division of Pangea, coupled with changing regional climates and increased volcanic activity, is thought to have played a part in the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event.
During the Jurassic era (ca. 201.3–145 million years ago), the supercontinent Pangea started breaking apart, giving rise to the continents we have today. A thriving community of marine invertebrates existed in the oceans, and giant reptiles ruled the aquatic habitats. They flourished on land, ferns, mosses, cycads, and conifers, with some even developing flower-like structures instead of cones. It was the time of the mighty dinosaurs, who became the kings of the land, with the largest and most impressive species evolving towards the end of the Jurassic. Interestingly, before this period ended, we saw the appearance of the first primitive bird, archaeopteryx. And let’s not forget about the little fellas—early mammals, those tiny shrew-like creatures from the previous Triassic period, survived and evolved too.
Eventually, in the mid-Cretaceous period, about 145 to 66 million years ago, an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from volcanic activity and seafloor vents led to a greenhouse effect. This caused the Earth to warm, leading to the growth of forests in the northern and southern polar regions. For example, Antarctica was once lush before the temperatures changed and had unique dinosaurs. After our quick rendezvous through the earth’s development, let’s get to the dinosaurs waiting in the wings to meet us.
Our first stop on this journey takes us back approximately 200 million years to the Early Jurassic period, where we encounter the fascinating coelophysis (pronounced seel-OH-fie-sis or SEE-loh-FY-siss). The name coelophysis means ‘hollow form,’ referring to its hollow limb bones, a feature shared by many other dinosaurs. These hollow bones allowed coelophysis to be an agile and swift hunter.
This sleek and slender dinosaur measured around 10 feet (±2.9 m) in length and weighed around 59 pounds (27 kg), making it a formidable predator of its time. As carnivorous dinosaurs, Coelophysis and its counterparts were skilled hunters, relying on their speed and agility to catch diverse creatures. From insects to small reptiles and even emerging small mammals, Coelophysis had a varied diet. With their sharp teeth and grasping claws, these mighty dinosaurs had the tools to secure and take down their prey quickly.
Our next fascinating discovery takes us back to the Early Jurassic, where we encounter Massospondylus (mass-oh-SPON-di-luss). This herbivorous dinosaur lived around 208 to 204 million years ago. Its name translates to ‘massive vertebrae,’ hinting at its unique features. With a lengthy neck reaching up to 14 feet (4 m), this dinosaur had the advantage of accessing vegetation at different heights. Some scientists believe Massospondylus may have been an omnivore, sometimes adding meat to its diet. They weighed a substantial 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) and were impressive creatures.
Fossils of Massospondylus have been found in various locations across South Africa’s renowned Karoo region, including Eastern Cape, Free State, and Western Cape provinces. These discoveries provide valuable insights into the behavior and anatomy of these remarkable dinosaurs. Each finding adds another piece to the puzzle of our ancient history.
The nqwebasaurus (n-qu-web-ah-sore-us), a coelurosaurian theropod from the Early Cretaceous (±159 to 132 million years ago), was around the size of a turkey. Its agility and speed were remarkable, thanks to its hollow bones and a large brain. Its long legs stood out the most, suggesting that Nqwebasaurus was a speedy runner compared to other bird-like dinosaurs.
Like modern birds, Nqwebasaurus had a unique way of aiding digestion. It would ingest small stones to help grind its food in the stomach. Its name, ‘fast running messenger lizard from Nqweba,’ highlights its swift nature and the place where its fossils were discovered in South Africa. They were measuring around 3 feet (91 cm) in length and weighing about 2.2 pounds (± 1 kg). Nqwebasaurus offers us valuable insights into the early evolution of ornithomimosaurs.
Adding to our list of South African dinosaurs, we introduce Ledumahadi mafube (Le-doo-ma-HA-dee MA-foo-bee). This massive herbivore roamed the Earth during the Middle Jurassic period. Its name translates to ‘a giant thunderclap at dawn,’ and it lived up to this name with an impressive size of about 13 feet (3.9 m) in height and 26 feet (7.9 m) in length. Fossils of this incredible dinosaur were discovered in Clarens in the Free State Province, offering insights into the evolution and diversification of giant sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Scientists think these dinosaurs walked on all-fours but crouched like cats.
Lead study author Blair McPhee mentions, “This was the animal that wanted to have everything. […] It wanted to be really big, like a sauropod, and wanted to walk predominantly quadrupedally, like a sauropod. […] But when it came to relinquishing that primitive mobile forelimb, it didn’t want to do that.” We can think of these giants as ‘evolutionary experiments.’
From the swift and agile Coelophysis to the majestic herbivores like Massospondylus and Ledumahadi mafube, and the fearsome hunter like Nqwebasaurus, each dinosaur species unveils a unique chapter in South Africa’s prehistoric legacy. These discoveries contribute to the global knowledge of dinosaurs and highlight the significance of South Africa as a paleontological paradise. So, whether you’re a dinosaur enthusiast or simply curious about Earth’s history, exploring the dinosaurs of South Africa is an adventure like no other!