Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have discovered a new dinosaur species with a heart-shaped tail bone. The dinosaur is a relative of the titanosaurs, a group of long-necked sauropods.
Scientists recovered the dinosaur's remains from ancient deposits in southwestern Tanzania. The region's Cretaceous-age rocks, exposed on the face of a cliff along the west branch of the East African Rift System, have yielded a wealth of dinosaur bones -- including three new species described by National Science Foundation-funded paleontologists.
Researchers named the newest species Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia, Swahili for "animal of the Mtuka [with] a heart-shaped tail." The 100-million-year-old Cretaceous deposits from which the partial fossil was recovered are situated alongside the seasonally dry Mtuka riverbed.
"Although titanosaurs became one of the most successful dinosaur groups before the infamous mass extinction capping the Age of Dinosaurs, their early evolutionary history remains obscure, and Mnyamawamtuka helps tell those beginnings, especially for their African-side of the story," Eric Gorscak, recent Ph.D. graduate of Ohio University, said in a news release. "The wealth of information from the skeleton indicates it was distantly related to other known African titanosaurs, except for some interesting similarities with another dinosaur, Malawisaurus, from just across the Tanzania-Malawi border."
Gorscak now works as an assistant professor at the Midwestern University and as a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Most titanosaur fossils hail from Cretaceous-age rocks in South America, but recent discoveries in Egypt and Tanzania have revealed a more complicated evolutionary story.
"The discovery of dinosaurs like Mnyamawamtuka and others we have recently discovered is like doing a four-dimensional connect the dots," said Patrick O'Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University. "Each new discovery adds a bit more detail to the picture of what ecosystems on continental Africa were like during the Cretaceous, allowing us to assemble a more holistic view of biotic change in the past."
Gorscak, O'Connor and their research partners described the new dinosaur species this week in the journal PLOS ONE.
Over the last several years, researchers from Ohio University have recovered a variety of interesting fossils from Cretaceous deposits along the East African Rift, including evidence of early crocodiles and the earliest evidence for "insect farming." Fossils recovered by Ohio University paleontologists have also offered new insights into the early evolution of monkeys and apes.
"This new dinosaur gives us important information about African fauna during a time of evolutionary change," said Judy Skog, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. "The discovery offers insights into paleogeography during the Cretaceous. It's also timely information about an animal with heart-shaped tail bones during this week of Valentine's Day."