MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Scientists have discovered a new species of dinosaur that once roamed South Africa. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports that the find sheds light on how giants like the Brontosaurus got so giant.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: It took ages to get this dinosaur out of the ground.
BLAIR MCPHEE: So it's quite a long (laughter) quite a sort of drawn out story. It starts, I think, around 1990.
KENNEDY: Paleontologist Blair McPhee says a few huge bones were discovered during construction near South Africa's border with Lesotho. They were brought to a university where they sat for more than a decade. Years later, a scientist stumbled across more bones sticking out of rock in the same area. Researchers then spent four or five years painstakingly excavating them.
MCPHEE: I took a long time because the sediment they were encased in had basically turned to concrete over about 200 million years, and it was sort of on a slight cliff face.
KENNEDY: Tests showed these bones matched the ones discovered in the '90s, and what was immediately clear was that this creature was big. It would have weighed in at around 12 tons.
MCPHEE: Which is about twice the volume of an African elephant.
KENNEDY: And McPhee says that there was something different about this dinosaur. Around the time this creature walked the Earth, during the Early Jurassic, dinosaurs were thought to be smaller. Adelphi University biology professor Michael D'Emic specializes in the evolution of dinosaur growth.
MICHAEL D'EMIC: I was really surprised that they found a dinosaur this big this old.
KENNEDY: At the time, it would have been the largest known land animal to have ever existed. The researchers think the creature evolved from a smaller ancestor that walked on two legs. And it's likely an early cousin of even larger animals, like the Brontosaurus, that lumbered around on four legs. McPhee says this is a transitional dinosaur. Its front legs look a lot like those of older, smaller dinosaurs, which use those limbs to grab things.
MCPHEE: They had a grasping hand, and they even sort of had, like, a rudimentary opposable thumb.
KENNEDY: And its back legs are like huge columns, similar to an elephant's or a Brontosaurus'. The scientists think that it could have reared up on two legs to, say, nibble on high branches but mostly walked on all four legs. That adaptation kept the huge dinosaur more stable and is what may have helped its later relatives to grow even larger. But it still had those grabby forelimbs. McPhee says it's...
MCPHEE: The animal that wanted to have it all, that wanted to have everything.
KENNEDY: The scientists have named it Ledumahadi mafube, which means a giant thunderclap at dawn. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.
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