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The dinosaur that wasn’t a dinosaur

The 230-million-year-old animal known as Azendohsaurus just shed its dinosaur affiliation, the American Museum of Natural History and the University of California in Santa Barbara announced today.

“A careful new analysis of Azendohsaurus madagaskarensis–this time based on the entire skull rather than on just teeth and jaws–aligns this 230-million-year-old animal with a different and very early branch on the reptile evolutionary tree,” AMNH said in a news statement.


This is a reconstruction of the skull of the new species of Azendohsaurus. On top is a lateral or side view, and on the bottom, a palatal or roof of the mouth view. Note the teeth covering the palate, a highly unusual feature among reptiles, and the downturned front end of the lower jaw, a feature found independently in many herbivorous archosauromorphs.

Illustration by S. Nesbitt/courtesy of AMNH

“Many aspects of Azendohsaurus are far more primitive than previously assumed, which in turn means that its plant-eating adaptations, similar to those found some early dinosaurs, were developed independently,” the museum added.

“It turns out Azendohsaurus is not an early dinosaur as long assumed, but rather something even more remarkable,” UC Santa Barbara said in its statement. “These animals have now been aligned with a very early branch of the reptile evolutionary tree.”


The new analysis is published in the journal Palaeontology and draws on research funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

“Even though this extraordinary ancient reptile looks similar to some plant-eating dinosaurs in some features of the skull and dentition, it is in fact only distantly related to dinosaurs,” says John J. Flynn, curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and recipient of several grants from the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

“With more complete material, we re-assessed features like the down-turned jaw and leaf-shaped teeth found in A. madagaskarensis as convergent with some herbivorous dinosaurs.”

The fossil is a member of Archosauromorpha, a group that includes birds and crocodilians but not lizards, snakes, or turtles.

The type specimen of the genus Azendohsaurus was a fragmentary set of teeth and jaws found in 1972 near (and named for) a village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, AMNH explained in its statement. “The fossils on which the current research paper is based was discovered in the late 1990s in southwestern Madagascar. Named A. madagaskarensis, this specimen was uncovered by a team of U.S. and Malagasy paleontologists in a ‘red bed’ that includes multiple individuals that probably perished together.”

This species was initially published as an early dinosaur in Science over a decade ago, but the completeness of the more recently unearthed and studied fossils has provided the first complete glimpse of what this animal looked like and was related to. Based on the new evidence,  A. madagaskarensis was not a dinosaur, researchers concluded.

A. madagaskarensis lived during the period of time that dinosaurs, crocodile relatives, mammals, pterosaurs, turtles, frogs, and lizards were getting their start, and all of the continents were connected as the supercontinent Pangaea, according to AMNH.

Four-legged weed-whacker 

A. madagaskarensis was 2 to 4 meters (6 to 13 feet) long and weighed between 20 and 50 kilos (about 44 to110 pounds). A. madagaskarensis was an efficient herbivore–“a veritable four-legged weed-whacker,” according to Flynn–with teeth modified for slicing vegetation covering not only its jaws, but also the roof of its mouth. “Even though early archosaurs were commonly thought to be primarily carnivorous, A. madagaskarensis shows that traits associated with herbivory were much more widespread across archosaur reptiles,” the museum added.


UC Santa Barbara’s André Wyss, with a photo of the Azendohsaurus madagaskarensis.

Photo courtesy of UC Santa Barbara

“Now there are many more cases of herbivorous archosaurs,” says André Wyss, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We are rethinking the evolution of diet and feeding strategies, as well as the broader evolution of the group.”

“This is the way science works,” says Flynn, commenting on the reinterpretation of the fossils. “As we found and analyzed more material, it made us realize that this was a much more primitive animal and the dinosaur-like features were really the product of convergent evolution.”

Wyss adds, “In many ways Azendohsaurus ends up being a much more fantastic animal than if it simply represented a generic early dinosaur.”

In addition to Flynn and Wyss, authors include Sterling Nesbitt, a former graduated student affiliated with the Museum and Columbia University; J. Michael Parrish, San Jose State University in California; and Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana, Université d’Antananarivo in Madagascar. This research was funded by the National Geographic Society, The Field Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the University of California Santa Barbara, and Worldwide Fund for Nature, Madagascar.

Posted by David Braun