A Ph.D student has discovered a new species of dinosaur called the Pulanesaura eocollum, or "Rain lizard," that lived 30 to 40 million years before brontosaurus.
While Pulanesaura eocollum is classified as a long-necked sauropod dinosaur – making it an early ancestor of brontosaurus – what made it unique is that the herbivorous dinosaur stayed on all fours, using its flexible neck to gather lower vegetation as its food source.
Ph.D student Blair McPhee described the new species of dinosaur in a paper to be published in Scientific Reports in September. The fossils of pulanesaura show that it had specialized teeth, vertebrae and forelimbs, suggesting that the dinosaur would eat from the ground instead of using its forelimbs like other herbivores of the time, conserving energy.
Since the Rain lizard had to rely on the flexibility of its neck to eat, it was able to shift its forelimbs beneath its body for support while grazing.
"This dinosaur showcases the unexpected diversity of locomotion and feeding strategies present in South Africa 200 million years ago," said McPhee. "This has serious implications for how dinosaurs were carving up their ecosystems."
Pulanesaura is estimated to have lived during the Early Jurassic period, between 200 and 180 million years ago. Researchers previously believed that only two species of sauropodomorph dinosaurs (long-necked herbivores that had access to higher foliage) lived in South Africa at this time, but the new find reveals that the Rain lizard lived and evolved alongside them.
"Now we know that the picture was much more complicated, with lots of species present," said Dr. Jonah Choiniere, co-author of the paper. "But pulanesaura is still special because it was doing something that all these newly discovered species weren't."
The fossils were uncovered at Heelbo, a farm in South Africa's Eastern Free State, previously owned by Naude Bremer, a great proponent of paleontology. "Pulane," which means "comes with rain" in the Sesotho language, was the nickname of Bremer's daughter — and the inspiration for the dinosaur's name, Pulanesaura eocollum. The Rain lizard's fossils were excavated during a rainy period.