Paleontologists Discover New Species Of Titanosaur In Tanzania

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online
For the second time this month, researchers have discovered a massive new type of dinosaur – a species of titanosaur known as Rukwatitan bisepultus which reportedly weighed as much as several elephants.
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A team of paleontologists led by Eric Gorscak, a doctoral student in biological sciences at Ohio University, discovered fossils of the new creature embedded in a cliff wall in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania, the school announced on Monday.
With the assistance of local coal miners and professional excavators, Gorscak’s team was able to recover vertebrae, ribs, limbs and pelvic bones over the course of two field seasons. CT scans of those fossils, combined with detailed comparisons of similar dinosaurs, revealed unique features suggesting this was a new species.
“This titanosaur finding is rare for Africa, and will help resolve questions about the distribution and regional characteristics of what would later become one of the largest land animals known,” Paul Filmer of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research, said in a statement.
“Titanosaurians make up the vast majority of known Cretaceous sauropods, and have been found on every continent, yet Africa has so far yielded only four formally recognized members,” he added. A paper devoted to the find appears in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
According to Gorscak and his colleagues, Rukwatitan bisepultus lived approximately 100 million years ago, during the middle of the Cretaceous Period. Like other titanosaurian sauropods, Rukwatitan was an herbivorous dinosaur that had a large body, a long neck and a wide stance. While it was not among the largest members of its group, it still possessed forelimbs that reached up to two meters long and was a massive plant-eater.
“Much of what we know regarding titanosaurian evolutionary history stems from numerous discoveries in South America – a continent that underwent a steady separation from Africa during the first half of the Cretaceous Period,” Gorscak said, according to Discovery News. “With the discovery of Rukwatitan and study of the material in nearby Malawi, we are beginning to fill a significant gap from a large part of the world.”
The bones of this new dinosaur were somewhat similar to another titanosaur, Malawisaurus dixeyi, which was previously recovered in Malawi. However, co-author Patrick O’Connor, an anatomist at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, noted that the two dinosaurs are distinctly different from one another, as well as from other titanosaurians known from northern Africa.
The fossils of middle Cretaceous crocodile relatives from the Rukwa Rift Basin also exhibit distinctive features in comparison to those found elsewhere on the continent, leading O’Connor to speculate that there “have been certain environmental features, such as deserts, large waterways and/or mountain ranges, that would have limited the movement of animals and promoted the evolution of regionally distinct faunas.”
Rukwatitan bisepultus joins Dreadnoughtus schrani, a new titanosaur species whose existence was confirmed and announced during the month of September. While Rukwatitan was not among the largest members of its group, the 85 foot long, 65 ton Dreadnoughtus was. In fact, the NSF said that it is the largest land animal for which a body mass can be accurately calculated, weighing more than a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex.
Image 2 (below): The humerus, or upper arm bone, and ribs of Rukwatitan in a cliff; the 2-inch brush is for scale. Credit: P. O’Connor, Ohio University
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