The 10 Most Important Dinosaurs of Africa

Sunday, January 17, 2016

From Aardonyx to Spinosaurus, These Dinosaurs Ruled Mesozoic Africa

Carcharodontosaurus, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: James Kuether

Compared to Eurasia and North and South America, Africa isn’t particularly well-known for its dinosaur fossils–but the dinosaurs that did live on this continent during the Mesozoic Era were among the fiercest on the planet. Here’s a list of the 10 most important African dinosaurs, ranging from Aardonyx to Spinosaurus.

Spinosaurus

The biggest meat-eating dinosaur that ever lived, even larger than Tyrannosaurus rexSpinosaurus was also one of the most distinctive looking, with its sailed back and long, narrow, crocodile-like skull (which were probably adaptations to a partially aquatic lifestyle). As was the case with its fellow plus-sized African theropod, Carcharodontosaurus, the original fossils of Spinosaurus were destroyed during an Allied bombing raid on Germany in World War II.

Spinosaurus, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aardonyx

Beside its pride of place at the top of any complete, A to Z list of dinosaurs, the recently discovered Aardonyx was one of the earliest prosauropods, and thus distantly ancestral to the giant sauropods and titanosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era. Dating to the early Jurassic period, about 195 million years ago, the slender, half-ton Aardonyx represented an intermediate stage between the two-legged “sauropodomorphs” that preceded it and its giant descendants tens of millions of years down the line.

Aardonyx, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Nobu Tamura

Ouranosaurus

One of the few identified hadrosaurs, or duck-billed dinosaurs, to live in northern Africa during the Cretaceous period, Ouranosaurus was also one of the strangest. This multi-ton plant-eater had a series of spines jutting out from its backbone, which may have supported either a Spinosaurus-like sail or a fatty, camel-like hump (which would have been an important source of nutrition and hydration in its parched habitat).

Assuming it was cold-blooded, Ouranosaurus may also have used its sail to warm up during the daytime and dissipate excess heat at night.

Ouranosaurus, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Carcharodontosaurus

Carcharodontosaurus, the “great white shark lizard,” shared its African habitat with the even bigger Spinosaurus, yet it was most closely related to another gigantic theropod of South America, Giganotosaurus (an important clue to the distribution of the world’s land masses during the Mesozoic Era; South America and Africa were once joined together in the giant continent of Gondwana).

Sadly, the original fossil of this dinosaur was destroyed in a bombing raid on Germany during World War II.

Carcharodontosaurus, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Sameer Prehistorica

Heterodontosaurus

The early Jurassic Heterodontosaurus represents an important intermediate stage in dinosaur evolution: its immediate predecessors were ancient theropods like Eocursor, but it had already begun to evolve in a plant-eating direction. That’s why this “differently toothed lizard” possessed such a confusing array of teeth, some seemingly suited to slicing through flesh (though they were really wielded on hard-to-clip vegetation) and others to grinding up plants.

Even given its early Mesozoic lineage, Heterodontosaurus was an unusually tiny dinosaur, only about three feet long and 10 pounds.

Heterodontosaurus, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eocursor

As explained in picture #5, during the Triassic period, South America and Africa were both part of the supercontinent of Gondwana. That helps to explain why, even though the earliest dinosaurs are believed to have evolved in South America about 230 million years ago, ancient theropods like the tiny, two-legged Eocursor (Greek for “dawn runner”) have been discovered in southern Africa, dating to “only” about 20 million years later.

The omnivorous Eocursor was probably a close relative of the similarly sized Heterodontosaurus, described in the previous slide.

Eocursor, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Nobu Tamura

Afrovenator

Although it wasn’t nearly as big as its fellow African theropods Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, Afrovenator is important for two reasons: first, its “type fossil” is one of the most complete theropod skeletons ever to be discovered in northern Africa (by the noted American paleontologist Paul Sereno), and second, this predatory dinosaur seems to have been closely related to the European Megalosaurus, yet more evidence for the slow drift of the earth’s continents during the Mesozoic Era.

Afrovenator, an important dinosaur of Africa. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Suchomimus

A close relative of Spinosaurus (see picture #2), Suchomimus (Greek for “crocodile mimic”) possessed a similarly long, crocodile-like snout, though it lacked Spinosaurus’ distinctive sail. Its narrow skull, combined with its long arms, point to Suchomimus having been a devoted fish-eater, which implies its kinship with the European Baryonyx (one of the few spinosaurs to live outside of South America or Africa).
Like Spinosaurus, Suchomimus may also have been an accomplished swimmer, though direct evidence for this is comparatively lacking.

Suchomimus by Andrey Atuchin

Massospondylus

Yet another important transitional dinosaur from southern Africa, Massospondylus was one of the first prosauropods ever to be named, way back in 1854 by the famous British naturalist Richard Owen. This sometimes bipedal, sometimes quadrupedal plant-eater of the early Jurassic period was an ancient cousin of the sauropods and titanosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era, and itself evolved from the earliest theropods, which evolved in then-adjoining South America about 230 million years ago.

Massospondylus carinatus by atrox1 on DeviantArt

Vulcanodon

Although few classic sauropods seem to have lived in Mesozoic Africa, this continent is littered with the remains of their much smaller ancestors. One of the most important discoveries in this vein is Vulcanodon, a relatively small (“only” about 20 feet long and four to five tons) plant-eater that occupied a position intermediate between the earliest prosauropods of the Triassic and early Jurassic periods (such as Aardonyx and Massospondylus) and the giant sauropods and titanosaurs of the late Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Vulcanodon by Prehistoric Wildlife

Article first appeared on thoughtco.com