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Biology of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph dinosaur Massospondylus from South Africa


In 1978 the legendary fossil hunter James Kitching discovered a clutch of Early Jurassic eggs in Golden Gate Highlands Park, South Africa, which he referred to the sauropodomorph dinosaur Massospondylus. This remarkable find represents the oldest known definite record of dinosaurian eggs. Furthermore, some of the eggs contained embryonic skeletal remains. In 2000 the eggs were lent to my frequent collaborator, Robert Reisz (University of Toronto at Mississauga) for a collaborative research project with me, David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), and Mike Raath from the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research (University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). The eggs discovered by Kitching represent a partially preserved nest. Some had already hatched. However, at least two eggs contain exquisitely preserved embryonic skeletons that were skillfully prepared by Diane Scott in Robert Reisz's lab. Together with numerous other skulls and skeletons of Massospondylus, ranging from juveniles to full adults (5 m long), these embryos will allow us to study the pattern of growth in this sauropodomorph. As Massospondylus is now the best-documented close relative of sauropod dinosaurs, the study of its ontogeny offers new insights into the fascinating problem of the origin of the largest land animals of all times. In addition to studying Kitching's find, the team has also returned to the locality where the eggs were first discovered and has identified additional nests.


Map showing the occurrence of skeletal remains of the Early Jurassic sauropodomorph dinosaur Massospondylus carinatus (small asterisks) and the occurrence of eggs of this dinosaur (large red asterisk) in Golden Gate Highlands Park near the border between South Africa and Lesotho. (Courtesy of Robert R. Reisz.)

Nearly complete skeleton of an embryonic individual of Massospondylus curled up in its egg. Note the size and the quality of preservation of the bones. (Photograph by Diane Scott.)

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