The long-necked dinosaurs known as sauropods were the biggest animals to ever walk on land. But a stunningly complete skeleton found in northern Zimbabwe provides a reminder that these giants—some of which reached masses of more than 60 ton—had somewhat more modest beginnings.
The newfound fossil, unveiled today in the journal Nature, is the oldest definitive dinosaur discovered in Africa, dated to some 230 million years ago, during the Triassic period. The animal is also one of the earliest known ancestors to sauropods, the group that includes iconic long-necked giants such as Brachiosaurus and Brontosaurus. Even though the animal was nearing maturity when it died, experts estimate it would have been less than two feet tall at the hip.
With a small head, a set of leaf-shaped teeth, and a neck of modest length, “it’s almost like a generic dinosaur, if you had a kid draw a dinosaur and make it not a meat eater,” says Chris Griffin, a paleontologist at Yale University who conducted the research while a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech.