Slow (Thunder)Clap for New Giant Dinosaur Ledumahadi

By Gemma Tarlach | September 27, 2018 10:00 am
Dig this big new dino, Ledumahadi mafube, a relative of Brontosaurus. (Credit: McPhee et al 2018)

Dig this big new dino, Ledumahadi mafube, which appears to have been the largest land animal of its time. (Credit: McPhee et al 2018)

They’re among the most iconic of dinosaurs: the sauropods, long-necked, long-tailed herbivores that evolved into the largest land animals the planet has ever seen. They were essentially the cows of their day. Very, very big cows. But they didn’t start out that way. A new dinosaur unearthed in South Africa reveals there are more plot twists to the sauropod story than we thought.

Ledumahadi mafube, the “giant thunderclap at dawn,” weighed in at about 12 metric tons, or upwards of 26,000 pounds. That’s only about a fifth as big as the largest dino-cows, which show up much later in the fossil record, but let’s be real: That is still one big animal.

What makes Ledumahadi significant isn’t just bulk, however. It’s also body plan. The large dinosaur was a sauropodomorph, a precursor to sauropods, and reveals it was possible to obtain enormous size much earlier, and without key anatomical adaptations, than thought.

The very earliest sauropodomorphs were bipedal, getting around on two legs, and many paleontolologists believed their initial body plan limited their size. The extreme size seen in the later sauropods was only possible, the thinking went, because they had already evolved adaptations to support that much weight.

Big But Flexible

Ledumahadi roamed what’s now South Africa about 200 million years ago, in the earliest years of the Jurassic Period. And while sauropods had four column-like limbs to support tremendous amounts of weight, similar to elephants today, Ledumahadi had flexed limbs.

(Sidenote: flexed limbs are not the same as the sprawling limb posture of reptiles and, hilariously inaccurately, some past dinosaur depictions. Rather, they’re limbs with a greater range of motion, seen in, for example, most less-than-a-ton mammals today.)

The particular suite of anatomical traits Ledumahadi had, unique in the fossil record, offers more evidence that quadrupedalism evolved multiple times and multiple ways among sauropodomorphs, including in lineages, like Ledumahadi’s, that dead-ended before evolving into proper sauropods.

The team also calls Ledumahadi the largest land animal of its time, attaining a size previously thought impossible based on its anatomy. It joins 10-ton Ingentia prima, announced in July, as the latest sauropodomorphs to show scientists there was more than one path to greatness.

The research appears today in Current Biology.

The growing body of evidence in the fossil record suggests sauropodomorphs, the largest dino-vegans, may have evolved from two- to four-legged animals several times. (Credit: McPhee et al 2018)

A growing body of evidence in the fossil record suggests that multiple lineages of sauropodomorphs, some of which evolved into the largest dinosaurs, may have evolved from two- to four-legged animals. (Credit: McPhee et al 2018)

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  • OWilson

    A co-incidence that the dinosaurs evolved from quadrupeds to bipeds, just like we great apes did! :)

  • Mike Richardson

    Amazing how bipedal sauropodomorphs actually evolved into quadrupeds, the opposite of human evolution from quadrupedal primates, as anyone who read the article would realize. Fascinating! :)

    • OWilson

      Evolution is a continuing process, and as Uncle Al always reminds us, evolution is not about who is right, but who is left! :)

      The only dinosaur progeny that survived extinction was of course, today’s bipedal bird!

      Survival of the fittest!

      • Mike Richardson

        Good grief, you just can’t admit you were wrong about quadrupeds to bipeds, like a mature adult? Of course not — you just doubled down on the ignorance. Stegosaurus was not the last quadruped dinosaur — it lived during the late Jurassic period, and went extinct long before the mass extinction of the late Cretaceous period. Furthermore, it was in an entirely different order ( ornisthicians) than the sauropods (saurischians) discussed in this article. This isn’t a political blog, where you can just throw out ” alternative facts. ” In a scientific discussion, accuracy matters and can easily be checked. But hey, I guess I should give you credit for getting the factoid about birds right. 😉

        • OWilson

          Correction accepted, Mikey.

          But a simple correction, was all that was necessary. :)

          No need for the breathless usual rant and gratuitous insults accompanying it! :)

          I actually meant to refer to that other schoolboy favorite Triceratops which went extinct with the others 65 million years ago.

          Substitute the correct name, and my point stands.

          Birds are the only successful descendants of dinosaurs, and they are bipedal! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            (V)

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