A small, fanged dinosaur called Pegomastax africanus was identified this week, more than half a century after its skeleton was dug up in South Africa. The dinosaur looked like a fierce cross between a chicken and a porcupine, and had long fangs which it used to eat plants and compete for mates. Pegomastax was a diminutive beast, standing less than two feet tall and weighing no more than a small house cat.
Paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered the dinosaur. He originally came across the skeleton in 1983 in the back rooms of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where it had been stored since the mid-1960s waiting to be cleaned and prepared. Decades after he first laid eyes on the skeleton, Sereno finally published his description of Pegomastax this week in the online journal ZooKeys.
On finding the fossil as a graduate student nearly 30 years ago
"A professor [at Harvard], Alfred Crompton famously found a small dinosaur called heterdontosaurus, which means "different-toothed reptile." It had canines, it was a beautiful little skeleton. And that's what I came to worship. I came to study its bones. But what I found was something else."
"On the slab were these tiny inch-long — just a little bit less than inch-long — jaws with teeth and fanged and it was revelation. I looked at it and immediately I knew I was looking at a new dinosaur.
On what Pegomastax looked like
"It has a very characteristic look — very short jaws, pretty much like a dinosaurian parrot."
"What really catches you are the fangs. It looks like a bird with a parrot-like beak but right behind that beak are fangs both upper and lower."
"Pegomastax is under two feet. We're talking about a small house cat in terms of weight. It would have been covered by a bristle-like covering making it perhaps less appetizing for another dinosaur to snarf it for lunch. And I think they were strict plant eaters."
On training a dinosaur as a pet
"They have a pretty good-sized brain, but I think the question would be could you train it not to nip you, something we have to train our dogs."
"I think you could probably get some average birdseed. We don't know what it was eating exactly, but a very short snout and this plucking, recurved beak and then the slicing teeth — it's eating something hard."
"I think you'd be able to keep it around and it probably would be trainable."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Back in 1983, a young graduate student in paleontology named Paul Sereno went to one of Harvard University's research museums to study a well-known fossil.
PAUL SERENO: A professor there, Alfred Crompton, famously found a small dinosaur called heterodontosaurus, which means different-toothed reptile. It had canines. It was a beautiful little skeleton. And that's what I came to worship. I came to study its bones. But what I found was something else.
RAZ: Hidden among the shelves in the back room, Sereno found blocks of red rock full of fossils that had never been studied.
SERENO: This is the 1960s when he originally collected all these blocks of sandstone. They came to Harvard. One dinosaur was a prepared heterodontosaurus. The others sat in a can.
RAZ: So a few days later, Sereno was talking to the man in charge of preparing fossils for examination. The man had been slowly going through those cans, dusting off ancient bones. And he showed Sereno one slab of rock that seemed particularly interesting.
SERENO: And on the slab were these tiny - this little bit less than inch-long jaws with teeth and fangs, and it was a revelation. I looked at it, and immediately, I knew I was looking at a new dinosaur. And that's sort of my story on this new dinosaur begins.
RAZ: OK. That was 30 years ago. And then what happened?
SERENO: Well, you know, I photographed this new beast, drew it up, reconstructed it. But I ended up taking a detour. I thought I would find new specimens myself. And I headed down to Argentina to the earliest dinosaur beds where fragments of this kind of dinosaur had been found 30 years ago. And I struck gold there. I found lots of early dinosaurs. But this kind of dinosaur, the different-toothed dinosaur, eluded my team.
And years passed, and I decided now is the time to release a very long study on this group, highlighted by a dinosaur I dubbed pegomastax, thick jaw, because it has a very characteristic look: very short jaws, pretty much like a dinosaurian parrot.
RAZ: Yeah, I'm looking at an artist's rendering of it, and it was like a snake, cat, parrot, chicken.
SERENO: Snake, cat, parrot, porcupine. But what really catches you are the fangs. It looks like a bird with a parrot-like beak, but right behind that beak are fangs, both upper and lower.
RAZ: Paul, we should mention before you discover further, that this was a two-foot creature. This is like a cute, little cat-sized dinosaur.
SERENO: Yeah. None of them are beyond three feet. Pegomastax is under two feet. We're talking about a small housecat in terms of weight. It would have been covered by a bristle-like covering, making it perhaps less appetizing, where another dino sort of snorts it for lunch. And I think they were strict plant eaters.
RAZ: If there was a dinosaur that you could domesticate, I think this would be the one.
SERENO: I think so. It'd be a question of - they have a pretty good size brain - but I think the question would be could you train it not to nip you, something we have to train our dogs. But I think you probably get some average bird feed - and we don't know what it was eating exactly, but a very short snout and this plucking, recurve beak, and then the slicing teeth, it's eating something hard, at least for part of its diet. It's probably picking at seeds. And so I think it, you know, you'd be able to keep it around, and it probably would be trainable.
RAZ: That's Paul Sereno, a paleontologist, who this week identified a new dinosaur species called Pegomastax. You can see photos and drawings of that dinosaur at our website, npr.org. Paul Sereno, thank you so much.
SERENO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.