Aorun Zhaoi

The skull of the Aorun zhaoi dinosaur fos­sil. Pho­to cour­tesy of Jon­ah Choiniere

A new species of dinosaur dis­cov­ered in Chi­na in 2006 has been named by a senior researcher at the Wits Evo­lu­tion­ary Stud­ies Insti­tute in Johannesburg.

Dr Jon­ah Choiniere and a team of inter­na­tion­al researchers named the species Aorun zhaoi, after one of the char­ac­ters in the Chi­nese epic Jour­ney to the West. The study about the find appeared in this month’s Jour­nal of Sys­tem­at­ic Palaeon­tol­ogy.

The tale describes a jour­ney by a monk along the Silk Road,” explains Choiniere. He encoun­ters the Drag­on King of the West, named Aorun. The species name, zhaoi’, refers to Zhao Xi-jin, a not­ed Chi­nese palaeontologist.”

The team had been exca­vat­ing in the Gobi desert for two years before the fos­sil was dis­cov­ered. Pro­fes­sor James Clark of the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton DC, dis­cov­ered an exposed leg bone, and after fur­ther dig­ging, a skull was also found.

We were able to look at micro­scop­ic details of Aoruns bones and they showed that the ani­mal was less than a year old when it died on the banks of a stream,” explains Choiniere. The new­ly dis­cov­ered dinosaur is esti­mat­ed to have been a metre long and weighed rough­ly 1.5 kilograms.

The new dis­cov­ery is anoth­er great exam­ple of the rich dinosaur diver­si­ty of the Late Juras­sic Peri­od in north-west­ern Chi­na,” says Xu Xing, the leader of the Chi­nese side of the research team.

The fos­sil will be kept at the Insti­tute of Ver­te­brate Palaeon­tol­ogy and Palaeoan­thro­pol­o­gy in Bei­jing. Researchers will con­tin­ue to work on the fos­sil site in the hopes of uncov­er­ing an adult spec­i­men, and learn­ing more about Aoruns feed­ing habits. The numer­ous small teeth of the skull sug­gest that the species was a thero­pod, or meat-eat­ing dinosaur.