Great discoveries in Malawi
Lilongwe – The palaeontological work on dinosaurs being carried out by the Antiquities Division in Malawi’s Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture has collected fossils of at least three species of dinosaurs, three species of crocodiles, turtles, some frogs and fish scales.
The work is being undertaken in collaboration with researchers from Southern Methodist University of Dallas in the United States under the Malawi Dinosaur Project.
It started in 1984 and has unearthed fossils of dinosaurs in the northern region Karonga District estimated to be from the Cretaceous period between 97 million and 145 million years ago.
The fossils include the Malawisaurus and Karongasaurus.
Malawisaurus, whose skeleton was mounted in Karonga Museum, constitutes the majority of the fossils collected so far.
It has been said the the Malawisaurus “was a genus of sauropod dinosaur (specifically a titanosaurid) that lived in what is now Africa, specifically Malawi, during the Aptian age of the Early
Cretaceous Period. It is one of the few titanosaurs for which skull material has been found”.
Director of Culture in Malawi’s Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture, Elizabeth Gomani Chindebvu, says relatives of Malawi’s dinosaurs were found in Tanzania, Niger, Madagascar and South America.
“This is because Africa and South America were once one supercontinent referred to as Gondwanaland or Pangaea,” she notes. The southern part of Pangaea comprised Africa, Australia, South America and Antarctica.
“These continents are now far apart because the continents are constantly shifting due to the movement of the tectonic plates within the earth, which is loosely referred to as the Continental Drift,” she says.
Chindebvu says the movement of the tectonic plates is also the cause of the recent spurt of deadly earthquakes in northern Malawi and explains the existence of Lake Malawi.
“The underlying forces can push these tectonic plates towards one another (compressional forces), common in areas where there are volcanoes or away from each other (tensional forces), common in areas where there are rift valleys.”
Malawi lies in an area of tensional forces within the Great East African Rift System.
“The rifting associated with the formation of Lake Malawi also helped to expose the rocks that contain the fossils in Malawi,” Chindebvu says, adding that in the northern Malawi rift, there lie three rock formations on the western shore of Lake Malawi, which stretch for more than 100km from Songwe River to the Livingstonia-Mchenga area on the Chiweta Escarpment.
“One of these sedimentary rock formations is known as the Dinosaur Beds,” she explains.
Last December, South African media reported that in the 1930s British palaeontologists unearthed fossilised bones in southern Tanzania that may be those of the oldest dinosaur ever found.
Scientists say the creature, a denizen of the Middle Triassic around 243 million years ago, predates all previous dinosaur finds by 10 million to 15 million years.
Christened Nyasasaurus, the putative dinosaur was about 80cm tall with body length of about three metres and tail that was 1.5m long. It probably weighed between 20kg and 60kg.
Nyasasaurus' name derives from Lake Nyasa (which is called Lake Malawi in Malawi).
It was found in sediment in the Ruhuhu Valley of southern Tanzania bordering Malawi, an area that is believed to have once been under Lake Malawi/Nysasa.
“If the newly-named Nyasasaurus parringtoni is not the earliest dinosaur, then it is the closest relative found so far,” said Sterling Nesbitt of the University of Washington in the US.
The Triassic Period – between 252 million and 201 million years ago – not only presided over the rise of the dinosaurs, it also saw the emergence of turtles, frogs, lizards and mammals. Some dinosaurs were giants three times larger than an elephant while others were no bigger than a chicken.
Chindebvu says dinosaurs are categorised into two major groups based on their hip structures: bird-hipped dinosaurs and lizard-hipped dinosaurs with different physical features which included claws, feathers and armour on their body.
“Some were quadrupedal, which means they walked on four limbs, while others were bipedal, meaning that they walked on two legs,” she adds.
Chindebvu suggests that the pre-historic animals were social animals that roamed around in herds, wandering over long distances in search of food and other amenities.