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Media Release: Ancient Dinosaur Nursery - The Oldest nesting site ever found.

Date: 24th January 2012

An excavation at a site in South Africa has unearthed the 190-million-year-old dinosaur nesting site of the prosauropod dinosaur Massospondylus — revealing significant clues about the evolution of complex reproductive behaviour in early dinosaurs. 

A new study, published in the prestious international journal PNas, led by Canadian paleontologist Robert Reisz, together with colleagues from USA, Australia, and The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, reveals clutches of eggs, many with embryos, as well as tiny dinosaur footprints, providing the oldest known evidence that the hatchlings remained at the nesting site long enough to at least double in size. 

According to the authors, the newly unearthed dinosaur nesting ground is more than 100 million years older than previously known nesting sites.

At least ten nests have been discovered at several levels at this site, each with up to 34 round eggs in tightly clustered clutches. The distribution of the nests in the sediments indicate that these early dinosaurs returned repeatedly (nesting site fidelity) to this site, and likely assembled in groups (colonial nesting) to lay their eggs, the oldest known evidence of such behaviour in the fossil record. The large size of the mother, at six metres in length, the small size of the eggs, about six to seven centimetres in diameter, and the highly organized nature of the nest, suggest that the mother may have arranged them carefully after she laid them. 

“The eggs, embryos, and nests come from the rocks of a nearly vertical road cut only 25 metres long,” says Reisz, a professor of biology at U of T Mississauga. “Even so, we found ten nests, suggesting that there are a lot more nests in the cliff, still covered by tons of rock. We predict that many more nests will be eroded out in time, as natural weathering processes continue.” 

The fossils were found in sedimentary rocks from the Early Jurassic Period in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. This site has previously yielded the oldest known embryos belonging to Massospondylus, a relative of the giant, long-necked sauropods of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. 

 “Even though the fossil record of dinosaurs is extensive, we actually have very little fossil information about their reproductive biology, particularly for early dinosaurs,” says David Evans, a U of T Mississauga alumnus and a curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. “This amazing series of 190 million year old nests gives us the first detailed look at dinosaur reproduction early in their evolutionary history, and documents the antiquity of nesting strategies that are only known much later in the dinosaur record.”

The study, co-authored by Drs. Hans-Dieter Sues (Smithsonian Institute, USA), Eric Roberts (James Cook University, Australia), and Adam Yates (Bernard Price Institute for Palaeotnological Research, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa), is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

*Images available upon request

Media Contacts:
Robert R. Reisz, Department of Biology University of Toronto Mississauga
Tel: 905-828-3981/3982
email: robert.reisz@utoronto.ca

David Evans, Department of Natural History (Paleobiology) Royal Ontario Museum
Tel: 416-586-5753
email: d.evans@utoronto.ca

Bruce Rubidge, BPI Palaeontology University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
072 575 7752

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