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A paleoartist's reconstruction of Mandasuchus © Mark Witton/Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

245-million-year-old reptile finally gets a name

Scientists have formally given an ancient reptile a name, over 80 years since its fossils were found in Tanzania.

Mandasuchus tanyauchen was a carnivorous reptile that lived around 245 million years ago and grew up to three metres in length. Mandasuchus was not a dinosaur - it was on the evolutionary branch of the reptile family tree that ultimately led to modern-day crocodiles. 

Mandasuchus fossils

Some of the Mandasuchus fossils in the Museum's collection

A wait of 245 million years, then 80 more

The Mandasuchus fossils were first discovered in the 1930s as part of a major palaeontological expedition to East Africa, which included work on a geological formation in Tanzania called the Manda Beds.

The fossils in these beds date from the Middle Triassic period, around 247-242 million years ago. This was a time when the archosaurs - a reptile group containing dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and their crocodilian relatives like Mandasuchus - began their rise to dominance.

Alan Charig (1927-1997) proposed the name Mandasuchus for this species in the 1950s, when he studied the Tanzanian fossils as part of his PhD thesis. Charig continued his career in palaeontology and subsequently became a curator at the Museum, but never completed his work on Mandasuchus.

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Alan Charig (1927-1997) proposed the name Mandasuchus tanyauchen

Fresh discoveries from old fossils

In recent years, new expeditions to Tanzania have found additional fossils, which have remained in Tanzania. Combined with the older discoveries, which have been housed at the Museum for around 60 years, these are shedding light on exciting topics such as early dinosaur evolution .

As part of this work, scientists are taking the time to ensure that the original discoveries are fully described in the scientific literature so that researchers can access the information.

The formal species description of Mandasuchus is published in a special memoir of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, compiling new research on the Triassic fossils of Tanzania and Zambia.

Mandasuchus skeletal diagrams

The fossil bones that have been discovered of three Mandasuchus, against animal silhouettes © Mark Witton/Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Museum palaeontologist Prof Paul Barrett commented, 'Studies like these highlight the important role that museums play as storehouses of information of the natural world. Although it took decades to complete this work, the specimens remained safe and accessible in our collections and now form the basis of this amazing new species.'

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A terror for tea

Until the new research, the most detailed description of Mandasuchus was probably in a Brooke Bond Tea picture-card album from 1970. Alan Charig was the scientific advisor, with artwork by Maurice Wilson.

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