The most complete fossil ever discovered of Heterodontosaurus tucki, a small herbivorous dinosaur that lived during the Jurassic period, was found in a stream bed on a farm in the Eastern Cape. The dinosaur that roamed the Earth 200 million years ago was found in January 2009 by renowned local palaeontologist Dr Billy de Klerk. Seven years later, at the end of July this year, the fossil travelled across the world to be studied further.

Led by Dr Jonah Choiniere, scientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand travelled to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France to scan the fossil in order to learn more about how it once lived. According to their website, the ESRF is “the most intense source of synchrotron-generated light, producing X-rays 100 billion times brighter than the X-rays used in hospitals” and functions “like a ‘super-microscope’ which ‘films’ the position and motion of atoms in condensed and living matter, and reveals the structure of matter in all its beauty and complexity”.

Although the fossil was excavated and enough rock was removed for the bones to be visible, further preparation work is impossible as the skeleton is small and delicate and the surrounding rock is too hard to safely remove. The ESRF is at the forefront of non-invasive techniques designed specifically for paleontological studies and will allow the scientists to “virtually” excavate the fossil from the remaining rock and reconstruct it in detailed 3D.

After recording all the data, Dr Choiniere said in an interview with the ESRF, “Right away when we open these images we can tell quite a few things about the skull. One of the things is that it’s likely a juvenile: the skull bones aren’t strongly sutured together. We can also tell that we’re really able to reconstruct the skull very, very well. On the first scans we can see the openings in the skull which are for the balance organs. We can digitally reconstruct the balance organs of the animal and tell how it held [its] head and how it interacted with its environment. That’s the sort of data you just can’t get by looking at a skull in 2D. So it’s very exciting.”

Speaking to Perdeby, Dr Choiniere said that the the discovery was significant because “this specimen is nearly complete, and it preserves anatomical features we’ve never before seen in an early plant-eating dinosaur. These features include ribs along the abdomen (gastralia) and bony plates between the bigger ribs of the chest. It also has an additional bone on the tip of its shoulder blade. Together, these features tell us a bit more about which dinosaurs heterodontosaurs were related to, and they might tell us a bit more about the functional anatomy of the animal, [such as] how it breathed.” He further said that the scanning process would not have been possible without help from the Department of Science and Technology, and the National Research Foundation investing in the European Synchrotron Facility. He added, “We invest in that facility so our researchers can have access to top-of-the-line equipment, and I think it’s an incredibly wise decision by our government.”.

South African palaeontologists have been collaborating with scientists and palaeontologists at the ESRF for many years. Last year the ESRF’s Dr Vincent Fernandez scanned some of the world’s oldest dinosaur embryos, which were also found in South Africa. He told the ESRF in an interview, “The rocks of the Karoo from South Africa have yielded an extraordinary amount of amazing fossils … since South Africa joined the ESRF as an associate country, we’ve been able to scan a lot of these fossils and work on projects that were not accessible before.

Local palaeontologist Dr Billy de Klerk at the site where the fossil was
discovered. Photo: Dr Billy de Klerk

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