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'Pegomastax,' among tiniest of all dinosaurs identified

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
October 4th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When we think of dinosaurs, we think of the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, who stomped the prehistoric world with his mighty feet, terrorizing all who came in its wake. Not generally as well known are the smaller breeds of dinosaurs that would nip at the heels of modern man. The Pegomastax, a bird-like smaller breed of dinosaur, has finally been identified after 50 years of research.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The Pegomastax spread across the planet more than 200 million years ago. Its jaws only one inch in length, the plant-eating Pegomastax is among the tiniest of dinosaurs ever discovered.

These fanged plant-eaters were previously known as heterodontosaurs, or "different toothed reptiles." Fossils have turned up as far apart as England and China. These dwarf herbivores have now been identified in a slab of red rock that was collected in the early 1960s by scientists working in South Africa.

Paleontologist Paul C. Sereno with the University of Chicago and a dinosaur specialist, dubbed the find Pegomastax africanus, or "thick jaw from Africa."

When he first viewed the specimen at a Harvard laboratory, Dr. Sereno said, "My eyes popped, as it was clear this was a distinct species."

The fossil revealed a creature with a short parrot-like beak, one-inch jaws, sharp teeth and a skull no less than three inches long. The Pegomastasx's entire body was less than two feet in length and probably weighed less than the typical house cat.

"I'm embarrassed to say how many years ago that was - 1983," he said. "But I was an enterprising graduate student then at the American Museum of Natural History. All the while since then, I wondered if anyone else might spot the creature hiding among the lab drawers."

The main researcher responsible for collecting the fossils was Alfred Crompton, a retired Harvard professor.

The Pegomastax fossils were eventually returned to the South African Museum in Cape Town, the true nature of the one slab still undiscovered, Dr. Sereno said.

A more thorough examination showed that behind the parrot-shaped beak were a pair of stabbing canines up front and a set of tall teeth tucked behind for slicing plants. These teeth in upper and lower jaws operated like self-sharpening scissors, Sereno says. The parrot-like skull may have been adapted to plucking fruit.

Dr. Sereno said it was "very rare that a plant-eater like Pegomastax would sport sharp-edged enlarged canines." Some scientists suggested that the creature may have consumed some meat, or at least insects.

Dr. Sereno concluded that the creature's fangs, unusual for a herbivore, were probably "for nipping and defending themselves, not for eating meat."

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