Macomb, IL – Matt Bonnan has been interested in dinosaurs since he was young. Now, his childhood dream has come true.
Bonnan, an associate professor in the Western Illinois University Department of Biological Sciences, is part of a team that discovered the remains of a new type of dinosaur in South Africa.
"It's often weird to wake up and say 'Wow, something I thought was a good idea at five, I'm actually doing as a career,'" chuckles Bonnan.
The discovery by Bonnan and other members of the team is considered important because the species is believed to be part of the transition from smaller dinosaurs to ones that became larger. The animal was a long-necked herbivore known as a Sauropod (what was once commonly referred to as a Brontosaurus). These were the largest dinosaurs that ever lived.
"This (newly discovered) dinosaur is interesting because, while it still walked on its hind legs, it was capable of dropping down onto all fours from time to time," says Bonnan.
"It has other features of its anatomy, such as bracing of its backbone and a foot that's sort of fatter toward the middle than the outside, which are characteristics we only see elsewhere in the big Sauropod dinosaurs. So it's showing us what some of the first steps are toward what we call gigantism."
The species is being called Aardonyx, which means "earth claw." That's because some of the first bones found were the creature's big toe claws, which were encased in red dirt.
Bonnan believes this particular Aardonyx was not fully grown. It was about 20 feet long and more than 5.5 feet high at the hips.
Bonnan says limb proportions show Aardonyx was a biped, although its forearm bones interlock (like those of quadrupedal sauropods), which suggests it could occasionally walk on all-fours. He says Sauropods eventually dropped to all fours as they became bigger and heavier.
The bigger animals could more easily digest food. In addition, the larger the animal, the less likely it is to be attacked by predators.
Bonnan says the discovery underwent considerable study and peer review before it could be announced. The finding is published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which is a highly regarded international publication.
All other members of the discovery team are from South Africa. They are Adam Yates, Johann Neveling, Anusuya Chinsamy, and Marc Blackbeard.
Bonnan says National Geographic and Western Illinois University provided funding that made it possible for him to spend time in South Africa.