Fossil find (Heterodontosaurus tucki) by Dr Billy de Klerk offers new insights into the species

Retired Albany Museum palaeontologist Dr Billy de Klerk, pictured below, has assisted the East London Museum with a number of fossil and geological queries. He has also invited museum scientist Kevin Cole into the field and posts on this blog on the 4th October 2011 and 27th may 2014 report on some excursions to the fossil rich beds in the Karoo. One of his finds Heterodontosaurus tucki has recently been researched – see the news articles below.


Kevin Cole (L) with Dr Billy de Klerk


Dinosaur fossil found in SA finally gives up its secrets

2016-07-27 07:11

Johannesburg – A remarkable dinosaur fossil discovery made by a South African palaeontologist in 2005 has finally revealed its secrets.The fossil, the most complete ever found of a species known as Heterodontosaurus tucki, was recently scanned at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.
The Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg took the complete skeleton of the small dinosaur to the ESRF. The dinosaur is believed to have roamed the earth 200 million years ago.Billy de Klerk found the fossil in a stream bed on a farm near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.abf5cd60772b4f8691f7aa13980963d7The dinosaur was scanned between July 21 and July 26.

“Heterodontosaurus was a small, plant-eating animal with grinding teeth in the back of the jaw and big canines in the front,” the ESRF’s spokesperson Delphine Chenevier said in a statement.

De Klerk excavated the fossil from the stream bed and removed enough rock from the bones to identify the animal. The skeleton was, however, too small and delicate, and the rocks around it too hard to enable scientists to fully study the anatomy. The fossil was therefore sent to the ESRF, where it was X-rayed.

“That’s where the synchrotron comes in: the high-energy X-rays generated… will allow scientists to reconstruct the skeleton in incredible detail,” said Chenevier.


A team of scientists, led by Wits Prof Jonah Choiniere, with the ESRF’s palaeontologist Dr Vincent Fernandez, scanned the specimen with high-powered X-rays. They wanted to understand how Heterodontosaurus ate, moved, and breathed.

“We think the back teeth are used for grinding,” Chenevier said.

“Typically, in dinosaurs that have grinding dentition, they have a certain type of tooth replacement, that is: teeth grow inside the jaw and gradually replace those grinding teeth as they wear down. Lots of scientists have speculated about tooth replacement in Heterodontosaurus. Now this is the first time that we have a complete jaw and we can actually test some of those speculations.”

Choiniere said the scans revealed details of the bones forming the roof of the mouth.

“We can see the palate and the mid-line of the skull and those palate bones are really very fine, less than 1mm across. We’ve scanned this at such a good resolution that we can actually see the outlines of the palate bones very, very well.”


Karoo fossil globe-trots for forensic analysis

 / 27 Jul ’16, 10:36am

The skeleton of a dinosaur which roamed the Eastern Cape about 200 million years ago had to be flown across the globe in order for intimate details about its origins to be revealed.

The Heterodontosaurus tucki skeleton was taken to Grenoble in France to undergo high-energy X-rays in order to find out more about how it ate, moved and breathed.

The skull of the Heterodontosaurus tucki dinosaur. Picture: Pierre Jayet. Credit: Supplied

A group of scientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University who joined experts at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) spent the past five days scanning and examining the skeleton of the small dinosaur.

The specimen, which was discovered by South African palaeontologist Billy de Klerk in a stream bed on a farm near Grahamstown in 2005, is the most complete fossil of H.tucki ever discovered.

The heterodontosaurus was a small, plant-eating animal with grinding teeth in the back of the jaw and big canines in the front.

Wits Professor Jonah Choi-niere, who led the team, described the images obtained during their visit as amazing.

“Right away when we open these images, we can tell quite a few things about the skull. One of the things is that it’s likely a juvenile,” he said.

“We can see the openings in the skull, which are for the balance organs. We can digitally reconstruct the balance organs of the animal and tell how it held its head and how it interacted with its environment.

“That’s the sort of data you just can’t get by looking at a skull in 2D. It’s very exciting.”

He said there was still a lot that scientists didn’t know about plant-eating dinosaurs.

“We need new specimens like this one and new techno-logy like the synchrotron to fill in the gaps.”

This work is part of a long- standing collaboration between palaeo scientists based at the ESRF and in South Africa.

Last year, the ESRF’s Dr Vincent Fernandez arranged for some of the world’s oldest dinosaur embryos, originating from South Africa, to be scanned at the facility.

“The rocks of the Karoo have yielded an extraordinary amount of amazing fossils,” Fernandez said.

“Since South Africa has joined as a member country, we were able to scan a lot of these fossils and work on projects that were not accessible before”.

After De Klerk discovered the fossil, he, along with John Hepple – a technician from Rhodes University’s geology department – and a crew from Grahamstown’s Albany Museum, excavated the fossil.

They painstakingly re-moved enough rock from the bones to identify the specimen.

“A few more years on the stream bed and the specimen might have been washed away. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” De Klerk said.

But because the skeleton was so small and delicate and the rocks around it so hard, scientists were unable to do any other preparation work which would enable them to study the anatomy of the fossil further.

On top of this, the fossilised bone and the rocks surrounding it have a similar density.

The synchrotron however, which generated high-energy X-rays – 100 billion times brighter than those used in hospitals – allowed the scientists to reconstruct the skeleton in detail.

The high coherence of the beam enhanced the contrast in the images, allowing the scientists to “dig out” the fossil from the rocks.

Wits master’s student Kathleen Dollman was part of the team that went to France. She said the technique has revolutionised the study of fossils.


About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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