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At last, a Xhosaurus

2000-09-26 12:03

Grahamstown - It took 135 million years, but a dinosaur has finally been given a Xhosa name. Welcome Nqwebasaurus thwazi - "the mythical, fast-running messenger".

This week a jubilant Dr Billy de Klerk, curator of Earth Science at the Albany Museum, announced the scientific arrival of the half-metre high carnivorous dinosaur, whose fossilised remains were found in the Kirkwood district in the Eastern Cape. "Nqweba", is the Xhosa name for the Kirkwood district, while "thwazi" is ancient Xhosa for the lightning-fast saurus (or lizard).

The name was the combined brainwave of De Klerk and the Rhodes African Languages Professor Peter Mtuze. Nqwebasaurus was discovered on a July afternoon in 1996 during a joint expedition by the Grahamstown Albany Museum and the State University of New York (Stonybrook) in the US.

De Klerk and the Stonybrook academic Dr Callum Ross had combed the hillside for fossils and had found nothing the whole day. Suddenly Ross saw tiny bone fragments scattered down a sandstone slope. He followed the trail to its source and dusting away the dirt with a paintbrush, discovered a fine shin bone attached to a foot bone.

"Callum called me over," says de Klerk. "As soon as we saw this, we knew it was something special." The rest of the bone was embedded in the rock, "We were convinced there was something more."

Not having any excavation equipment with them, they rushed back to Grahamstown to get plaster of Paris to coat the rock to prevent it disintegrating during transportation.

"It was a terrible rush" because Callum had to fly back to New York the next day." Back in his laboratory, De Klerk painstakingly exposed the bones in the rock, even taking the lump of rock to Greenacres hospital in Port Elizabeth where it was given a CT scan under the name "Mr Dinosaur" to determine the positions of the bones within the rock.

De Klerk said Nqwebasuarus Thwazi is a very rare find. "The chances of finding a carnivore is 100 times rarer than finding a herbivore, simply because there were a lot less of them round." He says it is only the second carnivorous dinosaur found in South Africa.

Nqwebasaurus Thwazi is of a type of dinosaur known as a Coelurosaurus and is the oldest of its kind to be found in the southern hemisphere, "muddying" previous thought that Coelurosaurus migrated to Gondwana from Laurasia.

It is also the most complete skeleton to be found in rock strata of the early Cretaceous period in southern Africa. De Klerk said different types of small stones were found in the stomach region that were etched by stomach acids.

"This is very unusual in meat eating dinosaurs." The stones might have been swallowed to aid digestion, much like the present day ostrich.

The discovery adds weight to the theory that dinosaurs were the precursors to modern day birds. รป ECN