Scientists announced on Wednesday the discovery of a new long-necked dinosaur with a dazzlingly cute (and, let’s be honest, a very PR-friendly) feature: its tailbones were shaped like hearts. But the discovery is more than skin-deep—the new dino could help paleontologists decipher how a larger group of dinosaurs called titanosaurs came to thrive on every continent on Earth during the Cretaceous Period.
The new dinosaur’s name is Mnyamawamtuka moyowamkia, which is Swahili for “animal of the Mtuka with a heart-shaped tail.” Mtuka is the Tanzanian riverbed from which the fossils were unearthed. Eric Gorscak, lead study author and paleontologist at Midwestern University, chose the moniker, and was very pleased to give the dinosaur a name with roots in Tanzania’s official language.
Moyowamkia bones were first excavated from Mtuka way back in 2004, a time when George W. Bush was president and Friends was still on the air. It took years to complete the fossil dig—the team would walk the dry riverbed, looking for spaces and protrusions in its walls that could signify fossilized dinosaurs. And even after they dug up everything they wanted to, it took years to analyze it all. They had to separate the fossils from the plain old rock they were embedded in, figure out which bone corresponded to which species, and also make sure a set of bones belonged to one dinosaur and not multiple. In other words, they had to “make sure the dinosaur didn’t have two left feet,” says Gorscak, who did the work while at Ohio University. “And then, of course, we do have responsibilities and lives,” he adds with a chuckle.
But the result definitely seems to be worth the almost 15 years of work they put in: a nearly complete skeleton of a new titanosaur, a group of dinosaurs known for their enormous size (the biggest to ever walk the earth), long necks and tails, and teeny, tiny heads. The team definitely knew moyowamkia was a new species because of its lovely, February-appropriate tailbones, as they note in their study published Wednesday in Plos One, along with the sizes and shapes of a few neck and chest bones. Gorscak says the team isn’t sure what function the heart-shaped bones might’ve had, but they look similar to the tail bones of one or two other titanosaurs. Ideally, piecing together how titanosaurs may have been related in this way could uncover some secrets of their evolution.
And while a new dinosaur discovery is inherently exciting, a new titanosaur from Africa is a big deal.
“Titanosaurs dominated Cretaceous ecosystems all over the world at the end of the age of dinosaurs,” says Kristina Curry Rogers, a paleontologist at Macalester College who wasn’t involved with the new study. “In spite of the fact that titanosaurs are being discovered at an astonishing pace and inhabited every continent on earth, the earliest phases of their take over are still pretty mysterious.”
But she says Africa is a “geographic blank space” when it comes to titanosaur discoveries, with just a small handful of exceptions. (Titanosaurs have turned up in Malawi and the Middle East.) That’s why discoveries like moyowamkia are crucial—they “are beginning to clarify what makes titanosaurs so special,” Rogers says.
In the future, Gorscak wants to check out other areas in Africa for evidence of titanosaurs and the animals that lived with them. “I want to go to Malawi next and start looking for whatever else is over there—anything and everything, big and small,” he says. “It’d be a nice springboard. And it goes beyond just titanosaurs. We want a full idea of what these prehistoric ecosystems were like.”