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New, House-Cat-Sized Dinosaur With Massive Fangs Is Identified

What we learn about dinosaurs keeps surprising us. Today in the journal ZooKeys we get a peek into an odd, new kind of dinosaur that was lighter than a house cat and just as small but had a terrifying set of teeth and a short, birdlike beak.

The fossil used to re-create the creature was actually discovered in southern Africa in the 1960s, but it is described for the first time today by Paul Sereno, paleontologist and professor at the University of Chicago.

Here's how the puny thing is described in the university's press release:

"Named Pegomastax africanus,or 'thick jaw from Africa,' the new species had a short, parrot-shaped beak up front, a pair of stabbing canines and tall teeth tucked behind for slicing plants. The tall teeth in its upper and lower jaws operated like self-sharpening scissors, with shearing wear facets that slid past one another when the jaws closed. The parrot-shaped skull, less than three inches long, may have been adapted to plucking fruit.

"'Very rare,' contended Sereno, 'that a plant-eater like Pegomastax would sport sharp-edged, enlarged canines' like that of a vampire. Some scientists have argued that consuming meat, or at the least insects, was a good part of the diet of heterodontosaurs, which evolved near the root of the great radiation of dinosaurs that included the famous plant-eaters Triceratops and Stegosaurus."

National Geographic spoke to Hans-Dieter Sues, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, who said the identification of a new species isn't the news here. Instead, the detailed explanation of them is.

For example, Sereno argues in his paper that those canine teeth were actually used for sparring for mates.

"Wear facets and chipped enamel suggest that the fangs of Pegomastax and other heterodontosaurs were used like those of living fanged deer for nipping or even digging rather than slicing flesh," the university explains.

Sues told National Geographic that if the little critter were around today, "it would be a nice pet — if you could train it not to nip you."

With a face like that, I think I'd stick to dogs.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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