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filmfann's avatar

Is this dinosaur story real?

Asked by filmfann (40796 points ) December 5th, 2012

Fox News and CBS are reporting the discovery of the oldest dinosaur in the world. It’s name is Nyasasaurus parringtoni
I am not sure if I should take it seriously, since the name is awfully close to the joke about the gay dinosaur Myassissaurus.
Is this an actual discovery?
Were news organizations pranked?
If it is true, did the person who named this dinosaur have a little joke on the scientific community?
Does the name have a legitimate scientific pedigree?

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6 Answers

PhiNotPi's avatar

According to a Wikipedia article, the dinosaur was discovered by Lake Nyasa in Tanzania, which is how it got its name. The editing history of the article shows that it was created in May of 2006, and one of the sources cites a book written in the 90’s. I think that this shows that the dinosaur’s existence has been known, although obscure, for quite a while now. The dinosaur is only now becoming known to the public due to the new findings.

bkcunningham's avatar

Here @filmfann is the paper about the discovery.

How can you collect a right humerus, three partial pre sacral vertebrae and three sacral vertebrae; seven bones, and get a rendering of what the creature looked like?

flutherother's avatar

It seems genuine:
“The name “Nyasasaurus parringtoni” combines the lake name “Nyasa” with the term “saurus” meaning lizard and “parringtoni” is in honor of University of Cambridge’s Rex Parrington, who collected the specimens in the 1930s.”

gasman's avatar

Wow, possibly Earth’s earliest dinosaur! Did FoxNews snicker as they read the name, betraying their usual puerile contempt for science? <Oops, forgot to disable rant mode…> @bkcunningham I’m no paleontologist but, based articles I’ve read about paleontology, you’d be surprised how much can be inferred from fossil bones & teeth. The original publicatoin (which you link to above) is here.

Here’s a report about this research from the not-always-reliable LiveScience, which sometimes presents press releases as reported news. Anyhow these excerpts explain some of the inferences that can be made from such fragmentary historical evidence…
———
They dated the fossils based on the layer of rock in which it was found and the ages for the layers above and below it (over time layers of sediment accumulate on top of remains, making a vertical slice somewhat of a timeline into the past).

They also looked at the ages of rock layers with similar animal remains found across the globe.

As for whether the beast is a dinosaur, several clues say it is. For instance, dinosaurs grew quickly, and a cross-section of the humerus suggests bone tissue was laid down in a haphazard way, a telltale sign of rapid growth.

“We can tell from the bone tissues that Nyasasaurus had a lot of bone cells and blood vessels,” said co-author Sarah Werning of the University of California, Berkeley, who did the bone analysis. “In living animals, we only see this many bone cells and blood vessels in animals that grow quickly, like some mammals or birds,” Werning said in a statement.

The upper arm bone also sported a distinctively enlarged crest that would’ve served as a place of attachment for arm muscles.

“It’s kind of your shoulder muscle or the equivalent in a dinosaur,” Nesbitt told LiveScience, adding that “early dinosaurs are the only group to have this feature.”

Vertebrate paleontologist and geologist Hans-Dieter Sues, who was not involved in the study, agrees with the dating and dinosaur tag placed on the remains. “I first saw the bones in the 1970s when the late Alan Charig (one of the co-authors) showed them to me,” Sues, of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., told LiveScience in an email. At that time none of his colleagues would accept that dinosaurs had appeared so early in geological history.”

Sues added that additional, more complete remains are needed to confirm the relationships between Nyasasaurus and other dinosaurs.

bkcunningham's avatar

I read all of that, @gasman. I understand the part about how they think the animal grew quickly based on the haphazard way the bone tissue was laid down. It still doesn’t explain how they came up with renderings like this.

gasman's avatar

The “artist[‘s] rendering” is obviously filled in with educated guesses. Skin color (hue, patterning) can only be guessed at. The artist might have guessed at neck and tail lengths. Head shape, without the actual skull, depends on known skulls of related ancestors and descendants. Overall body size and shape can be “interpolated” within a continuum of other, similar vertebrae in more complete reptile skeletons, both earlier and later. Musculature of limbs is inferred from bone attachments, etc.

Nobody should expect that such a fanciful artist’s drawing could be totally accurate & scientifically valid in every detail – but if it helps capture public imagination & foster interest in science, then I’m all for it.

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