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U. of C. dino hunter Paul Sereno’s latest find had ‘freaky hairdo’


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Updated: November 5, 2012 11:35AM

It has fangs, quills and a face only a mother could love, but local dinosaur hunter Paul Sereno’s latest find would make the perfect pet.

“It would make an awfully good pet if you could train it not to nip,” Sereno said.

In a report published Wednesday in the online journal ZooKeys, Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, introduced Pegomastax africanus, the newest member of the Heterodontosaurus family of dinosaurs.

“I would describe it as a very Halloweenlike parrot,” Sereno said. “It had a freaky appearance, like a ’60s dinosaur with a freaky hairdo.”

Spanning only 2 feet in length and weighing less than the average house cat, Pegomastax was what Sereno calls “punk-sized.”

The tiny dino was covered in quills, much like a porcupine, and had fangs — something especially rare for a plant-eater like Pegomastax.

The new species sports a short, parrotlike beak used for picking up hard items like seeds, as well as a large pair of fanglike canines used for slicing plants.

“The fangs give it a particularly curious look, but they were for nipping and fighting around mates. They’re not meat-eating fangs,” Sereno said. “You don’t see this in herbivores, so they’re very good plant eaters.”

He said that Pegomastax was almost more birdlike than dinolike and was the life of the party.

“It’s a little fidgety,” Sereno said. “It had a wild social life and would have been interacting a lot. It was the small dino of the day.”

Pegomastax lived about 200 million years ago — at the very beginning of the dinosaur era. Sereno’s interest in the very first dinosaurs led to Pegomastax’s discovery at the beginning of a different era — the beginning of his own career as a paleontologist.

Sereno first spotted the dinosaur in a collection of fossils at Harvard University about 30 years ago, when he was a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History. Paleontologists brought the fossils, contained in hunks of rock, from a site at the border of South Africa and Lesotho.

“I was trying to decipher the earliest dinosaurs, and by far the earliest dinosaur in a few hours’ drive was the skeleton at Harvard,” Sereno said. “I was shown this collection, and they pulled out that block and [I] knew instantly it was a new species.”

Surprisingly, Sereno left the fossil at Harvard and didn’t publish his findings until now.

“You know how life can be. I decided to find my own early dinosaurs,” said Sereno, who went on to name numerous species of dinosaurs. “It was exposed for anyone to see, and no one named it. So I finally decided to put this report together.”

Sereno, who is one of the National Geographic Society’s Explorers-in-Residence, hopes to have another report published in the next year. And Sereno promises it might be even weirder looking than Pegomastax.

“I have one or two in my back pocket that will easily compete with this one,” Sereno said. “We definitely have one weird one coming.”

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