What prehistoric creature has sharp teeth, lots of scales and was recently examined by a team of UCSB scientists? The Azendohsaurus madagaskarensisazendohsaur, which is, well, contrary to initial beliefs, not a dinosaur.

Piecing together bits of a 230-million-year-old skull recently unearthed in Madagascar showed scientists that the Azendohsaurus’ remains — originally determined by just their teeth and jaws — sit closer on the evolutionary tree to reptiles than dinosaurs.

[media-credit name=”Photo Courtesy of George Foulsham” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]UCSB earth science professor Andre Wyss and other researchers published their findings in the journal Paleontology revealing Azendohsaurus to be far more primitive than had been originally thought. However, despite its disappointment as a dino, Wyss said he’s excited to uncover more about the new reptilian species.

“At first we were a little bummed to learn it wasn’t a dinosaur — because it would have been one of the world’s oldest,” Wyss said. “But discovering how cool and unexpected this animal was, quickly made us forget about dinosaurs.”

Part of a reptilian group called the Archosauromorpha — which includes birds and crocodilians but not lizards, snakes or turtles — the Azendohsaurus, Wyss said, may have looked “superficially” like a hefty lizard, weighing in at about 200 pounds. Because it is only distantly related to dinosaurs, the giant lizard’s plant-adapted palate formed independently from those found in dinosaurs living during the same time.

“Flowering plants, the kind of plants dominating modern ecosystems, had not yet evolved,” Wyss said. “This animal probably ate fairly tough vegetation such as cycads.”

Prior to this recent discovery, scientists determined the genus Azendohsaurus by a set of teeth and jaws found near a village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains nearly 40 years ago. Then in the 1990s in Madagascar, the world’s largest island found off of Africa’s eastern coast, a related species was uncovered. Then, roughly 10 years ago, the current Malagasay fossils were discovered by a team of U.S. and Malagasay paleontologists in the red sediment of a gully.

“I suspect that they were found on the surface of the ground,” Wyss said of the 72 Moroccan specimens.
Identified as a very early dinosaur, the initial study was published in the journal Science. But after “quarrying a hillside,” as Wyss stated, and comparing the fossil specimen with those of other reptiles in the area, scientists used the new unearthed specimen to reconstruct what the animal looked like. To their shock, it wasn’t a dinosaur.

“Simply finding the first bones there was probably the biggest thrill,” Wyss said. “Since Madagascar was such a paleontological unknown we knew that if we managed to find anything, it would be scientifically important — and we turned out to be right.”

The large lizard lived at a time when dinosaurs, crocodilians, mammals, pterosaurs, turtles, frogs and lizards were just emerging. Roughly six to 13 feet long, A. madagaskarensis roamed the supercontinent of Pangea slicing and dicing plants with teeth which covered both its jaw and the roof of its mouth. Its weed-whacking abilities have lead scientists to question the internal structure of archosaurs, who were once considered carnivores.

“We now know a lot about a truly bizarre creature that we had only the slightest information about previously,” Wyss said.

Wyss, who has been working in Madagascar on and off for about 15 years said he hopes discoveries like these will help scientists uncover other “back boned” ancient creatures from the island of Madagascar.

“I’m proud of what we and our Malagasay colleagues have accomplished over the years; its kind of like if somebody set you loose in California 200 years ago and told you to find gold,” said Wyss. “Madagascar is 50 percent bigger than California and we’ve succeeded in finding something even more precious — scientific gold.”