December 3, 2004

New Dinosaur Species Discovered in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- Scientists have unveiled a replica of a new species of dinosaur whose fossils were recently discovered in Brazil. The new dinosaur, an ancestor of the brontosaurus, has more in common with species found in Europe than with other finds in South America.

A replica of Unaysaurus Toletinoi, a small plant-eater that lived some 230 million years ago, was unveiled last week at the National Museum in Rio.

"It differs from all other dinosaurs," Zootaxa, a scientific journal published in New Zealand, said in a recent issue. "Unaysaurus represents the first 'prosauropod' grade dinosaur from Brazil."

Prosauropods were primitive dinosaurs with long necks and tails, like the earthshaking giants in the film "Jurassic Park." Although unaysaurus was just 2.5 meters (8 feet) long and weighed about 70 kilograms (150 pounds), he was the ancestor of the huge brontosaurus and diplodocus that appeared millions of years later.

"He's a unique dinosaur," said biologist Luciano Leal of the National museum, who helped unearth the fossil.

"We thought at first the dinosaur was related to dinosaurs from Argentina," Leal said. "But research proved that it was related to animals from Germany."

The continents then were joined in one huge land mass scientists call Pangea, which eventually broke up and drifted apart. But they don't know why Argentine dinosaurs seem to be more closely related to African dinosaurs than to those from Brazil.

"The geographical distribution of this group is much more complex than we imagined," Leal said. "Something separated the group in the sub-continent."

Unaysaurus is the oldest of the 11 dinosaurs found in Brazil. It lived in the Triassic period, long before the huge dinosaurs evolved.

Signs of prehistoric life have been found across Brazil, Latin America's largest country. The rock formations of the far south are especially rich and have yielded the Staurakisaurus and the Saturnalia, very primitive sauropods.

When the unaysaurus died, its bones were calcified and remained buried until May 1998.

Then, Tolentino Marafiga, a retired industrial worker, was walking to a game of bocce when he noticed the fossil sticking up on a back road in Agua Negra, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) southwest of Rio de Janeiro.

He didn't recognize the bones as animal or human, so he called the local Santa Maria Federal University.

Using hammers and chisels, Leal and colleagues dug out the bones and spent nearly six years cleaning and mounting the fossil, which included a nearly complete skull.

The dinosaur was named for the region -- Unay is the Tupi Indian term for Black Water, or Agua Negra in Portuguese -- and Toletinoi in honor of its discoverer.

The discovery of unaysaurus is especially satisfying for Brazil, where fossils don't survive well in the heat and humidity. By contrast, neighboring Argentina, with its vast, rocky plains stretching down to Patagonia, is considered ideal terrain for fossil hunting.

"Dinosaurs always get attention. They have a great public," said Leal. "But what's important is the scientific discovery. And it's our chance to offer something back to society, which pays our bills."


On the Net:

Federal University of Santa Maria