MASERU, Lesotho — They found the giant footprints near a dirt road between the villages of Ha Mokhosi and Ha Matobo in Lesotho, a small country encircled entirely by South Africa.
Nearly two feet long, the size and spacing of the three-toed footprints allowed the scientists that discovered them to estimate the proportions of the creature that created them. Their calculations showed the beast responsible for the tracks was about 30 feet long, with its hip at a height several feet above a person’s head.
The tracks were that of a very large carnivorous dinosaur new to science — a true monster that walked the earth 200 million years ago.
“The latest discovery is very exciting and sheds new light on the kind of carnivore that roamed what is now southern Africa,” says University of Manchester researcher Fabien Knoll in a press release on the find. “…it is the first evidence of an extremely large meat-eating animal roaming a landscape otherwise dominated by a variety of herbivorous, omnivorous and much smaller carnivorous dinosaurs. It really would have been top of the food chain.”
Dubbed Kayentapus ambrokholohali, the newly discovered dinosaur belongs to a group known as “megatheropod,” a classification that includes the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex.
While the research on the tracks is newly published, the discoverers say they are indebted to a professor David Ambrose of the National University of Lesotho, who first introduced them to the potential for such tracks in the area over 15 years ago.
“We hereby acknowledge not only the generous hospitality we received from him and his wife, Dr. Sumitra Talukdar, during our repeated visits, but also their meticulous bibliographic work on the paleontology of southern African and other countless regional topics,” the study authors write.
Including scientists from University of Cape Town and Universidade de São Paulo, the international team that made the find says Kayentapus ambrokholohali is currently the largest known carnivore to ever roam southern Africa.
“In South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Namibia, there is good record of theropod footprints from the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic epochs,” Knoll says. “In fact, there are numerous palaeosurfaces where footprints and even tail and body impressions of these, and other animals, can be found. But now we have evidence this region of Africa was also home to a mega-carnivore.”
Palaeosurfaces refer to ancient ground preserved as it was in prehistoric times. The researchers say the palaeosurface Kayentapus ambrokholohali was found on also preserved ripples from water and cracks from when it dried out. This, they write, indicates the tracks were likely made when the giant reptile visited a watering hole or river to drink or catch prey. Indeed, the nearby palaeosurface was also “covered with the tracks of much smaller theropod dinosaurs.”
A tremendously significant find, Kayentapus ambrokholohali changes ideas about the size of dinosaurs that lived in that part of the world during the early Jurassic epoch. Until its discovery, it was thought that a dinosaur of its type and size didn’t yet exist in that area. Such large predators are usually thought to have emerged millions of years later, around the time of T. rex.
“Globally, these large tracks are very rare,” says Lara Sciscio, a researcher at University of Cape Town. “There is only one other known site similar in age and sized tracks, which is in Poland.”
Details of the discovery were published last week in a paper in the journal PLOS ONE.