Box #17 in our count down is Ostafrikasaurus…
Ostafrikasaurus: the “Lizard from German East Africa”
Back in the days of adventure and exploration, with the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and just before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, eight teeth where found in what is now Tanzania. At the time the area was known as Deutsch-Ostafrika, the German name for the colony of “German East Africa” in the early 1900s. The teeth where thought to look similar to a creature called Labrosaurus.
The only problem? Labrosaurus was named on bits and pieces at the height of the Bone Wars, a period of heavy competition between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. These two men had many assistants. Records were easily misplaced, lost, or actively sabotaged, and this often led to confusion. Plus there was great incentive to give each new handful of scattered pieces a separate name. In part this was because there wasn’t enough overlapping pieces to compare and be sure it was the same as a different handful of pieces. Like lumping all the puzzle pieces with flowers or bits of cloud until you have enough of the piles to start putting them together and figure out that there are two or three different puzzles. Or even all part of the same puzzle.
Fossils like these often get stuffed in a drawer and forgotten about for a while. In the year 2000, the teeth were determined to look more like those of Ceratosaurus, a three-horned meat-eater from North America. Fast forward between 2007 to 2012, and more research comparing these teeth and other “puzzle piece piles” determined that pieces assigned to Labrosaurus were actually Allosaurus, and others were Ceratosaurus. Several of the eight teeth were officially assigned as Ceratosaurus teeth, but one tooth was different.
Some proposed that they looked like those of Baryonix, an early relative of the famous Spinosaurus. If true, then the animal to which the tooth belonged would be the first evidence of a relative of Spinosaurus from the late Jurassic. A group that is most commonly known from the Cretaceous.
Ostafrikasaurus was officially named in 2012, but there is still heavy debate on whether the teeth are of a spinosaurid or a ceratosaurid.
Ostafrikasaurus offers an example of areas of paleontology that are more controversial. Should we name new animals based on teeth alone, or should we simply catalogue them and leave them in a drawer until more complete fossils are found? Perhaps making unusual hypothesis and naming unique fragments like teeth should be encouraged because of the conversation they inspire, which ultimately ensures that when more complete fossils are found comparisons are made with the handful of existing fossils. Rather than allowing fragments to lay dormant in a drawer and be forgotten.
It also brings to mind the possibility of a group of dinosaurs previously unknown to the time, and that is exciting! After all, what is the likelihood that modern egg-laying mammals will fossilize for future paleontologists to discover? For millions of years before or after a particular time in Earth’s grand history, there are animals that are the last-surviving members of their group, or the first pioneers. All too often, they are rare examples of their kind, and the possibility of being fossilized, the possibility of our researchers finding them and knowing they exist, are next to none.
Perhaps Ostafrikasaurus is not a spinosaurid after all, but until we find more fossils one can imagine the possibilities.