Image: Heterodontosaur
Tyler Keillor
Muscles, skin, scales and quills have been added to a skull cast of a heterodontosaur to produce a terrifying Dracula look. Heterodontosaurs such as Pegomastax africanus were plant-eaters. The fangs are thought to have been used for defense, foraging or nipping at rivals.
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updated 10/3/2012 12:10:46 PM ET 2012-10-03T16:10:46

A bizarre dinosaur had vampire-like fangs, a parrot beak and porcupine bristles, researchers say.

The ancient creature, which was found 50 years ago in southern Africa but drew relatively little attention until now, may shed light on the evolution of the major group of dinosaurs that included famous giants such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops .

The 200-million-year-old dinosaur "was two-legged, probably fleet-footed, and had grasping hands," said researcher Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago.

Named Pegomastax africanus, or "thick jaw from Africa," it was less than 2 feet (0.6 meters) long and weighed less than a house cat at 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) at most, "and was mostly tail and neck," Sereno added.

Drawing by Todd Marshall
This shows the new dinosaur dwarf Pegomastax from South Africa. With jaws only 1-inch in length, plant-eating Pegomastax ("thick jaw") is one of the smallest dinosaurs ever discovered.

Strangely, bristles somewhat like porcupine quills may have spread across most of the body of Pegomastax. Such bristles first appeared in a relative named Tianyulong recently discovered in China. Buried in lake sediments and covered by volcanic ash, Tianyulong was preserved with hundreds of bristles covering its body from its neck to the tip of its tail. [ Paleo-Art: Stunning Illustrations of Dinosaurs ]

"It would have looked a bit like a two-legged porcupine, covered in these weird, funky, quill-like things," Sereno said of Pegomastax. "The bristles were not quite as strong as a porcupine's, and they don't look as if they were especially effective for insulation. Perhaps they had colors and helped differentiate species, or made Pegomastaxlook bigger than it actually was to potential predators."

Extending from its parrot-beaked skull, which was less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, were serrated canines a half-inch (0.8 cm) long from both its upper and lower jaws.

"It would have looked like Dracula," Sereno told LiveScience. "Probably appropriate, since we're now moving toward Halloween."

The dinosaur was originally chipped out of red rock near the border of Lesotho and South Africa by Harvard researchers in the 1960s. Sereno recently came across it while going through Harvard archives.

"I was just amazed," Sereno recalled.

Although the long stabbing fangs might hint that Pegomastax was a predator, its parrotlike beak instead suggests it ate seeds and nuts, or maybe plucked fruit. When the jaws closed, the fangs slid into sockets in the opposing jaws instead of sliding past one another for the optimized cutting or gripping expected of a carnivore.

"The canines probably had nothing to do with meat-eating," Sereno said. "They may have been used to spite rivals, nip at others, defend themselves, maybe root around for food."

Tall teeth in the back of the jaw probably helped slice plants, with surfaces that slid past one another when the jaws closed, operating like self-sharpening scissors. "Pegomastax and kin were the most advanced plant-eaters of their day," Sereno said.

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Pegomastax belonged to one of two major divisions of dinosaurs, the "bird-hipped" ornithischians, which included armored ankylosaurs, bony-plated stegosaurs, duck-billed hadrosaurs and horned, frilled ceratopsians such as Triceratops. Ironically, birds themselves belong to the other major group of dinosaurs, the "lizard-hipped" saurischians, which included the carnivorous theropods such as Tyrannosaurus and the long-necked herbivorous sauropods such as Diplodocus.

When Pegomastax was alive, the supercontinent Pangaea had just begun to split into northern and southern land masses. Pegomastax appears to lie near the base of the family tree of the ornithischians, and as such could shed light on the evolution of this major group, Sereno said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Wednesday in the journal ZooKeys and on the website of the National Geographic Society.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook  and Google+.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The world's seven deadliest dinosaurs

  • Copyright 1985 Mark Hallett, "Awakening of Hunger"

    Yeah, it's cliche to say Tyrannosaurus rex was deadly. But the tyrant king was likely true to the billing. Its bone-crushing jaws could splinter prey like toothpicks, after all. And the beast was big, up to 40 feet long, 20 feet tall, and may have topped the scales at nearly 16,000 pounds.

    The king walked on two legs over a vast territory in western North America at the end of the Cretaceous, about 65 million years ago. Scientists wonder whether T. rex was more a lumbering scavenger or a quick and agile predator, but dead or alive, its meals were big, meaty and bloody.

    T. rex wasn't the only deadly dino, however. The globe was filled vicious killers. Click the arrows above to see more.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Family diner

    Demetrios M. Vital

    Family meals for Majungasaurus crenatissimus were often bloody affairs of the grimmest sort: Kin were the main course. The evidence of its cannibalistic ways comes from telltale tooth marks on Majungasaurus bones that match up perfectly with the size and spacing of teeth in its jaws.

    The 20-foot-long dinosaur stalked the plains of Madagascar about 70 million years ago. At that time, the crime-scene investigators said, pickings were often slim. Their data indicate Majungasaurus fed on dried out "dino jerky" from its plant-eating compatriots as well as members of its own species. Cannibalism was likely just as common among dinosaurs as it is among living animals, but the evidence is rare.

  • Brow beater

    Todd Marshall

    Eocarcharia dinops' brow was swollen into a massive band of bone. The menacing head piece may have been used as a battering ram against rivals and to attract potential mates. Its blade-shape teeth were reserved for disabling live prey and severing their body parts.

    The 110-million-year-old beast and its snout-nosed, gut-and-carcass-scavenging relative Kryptops palaios were discovered in Africa's Sahara Desert. The approximately 7-foot-tall and 25-foot-long duo likely teamed up with a third carnivore and feasted on the long-necked plant-eater Nigersaurus.

  • Vicious rocker

    Parsons

    The toothy Masiakasaurus knopfleri likely speared prey with its forward projecting front teeth and then sliced and tore the captives into chewy chunks with its bladelike rears. This type of tooth arrangement is otherwise unknown in predatory dinosaurs.

    Scientists believe the German Shepherd sized beast feasted on fish, lizards, and other critters on the southern supercontinent Gondwana in the Late Cretaceous period, about 65 to 70 million years ago.

    The first part of this dinosaur's name means "vicious lizard" and the second part is derived from the Dire Straits singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose music inspired the discoverers as they toiled on the African island nation of Madagascar.

  • Biggest carnivore?

    Prof. Rodolfo Coria / Ap

    At about 40 feet long and weighing an estimated 6 tons, Mapusaurus roseae was one of the biggest meat-eating dinosaurs to ever stalk the Earth. Bones of several individuals were discovered in one place, suggesting the giants may have hunted in packs that could have toppled perhaps the largest dinosaur that ever lived — a 100-foot-long plant eater called Argentinosaurus.

    Mapusaurus lived about 100 million years ago and was bigger than well known Tyrannosaurus rex and possibly larger than its older cousin, Gigantosaurus. Its teeth were narrow and blade like, made for slicing its prey. The bones were discovered in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

  • Going green

    MWS

    Falcarius utahensis is the living image of a vicious meat eater trying to go vegetarian. Scientists aren't sure if the bird-like relative of Velociraptor had fully kicked its taste for flesh, but its meat-cutting teeth had shrunk to leaf-cutting size and its gut had expanded sufficiently to ferment plants.

    Falcarius walked on two legs and stood about 4.5 feet tall. Head to tail, it was about 13 feet long and wielded sharp, curved, four-inch long claws — perhaps to grab a bite when it fell off the wagon? The dinosaur lived during the Early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago, in what is today Utah.

  • Plant ripper

    utah.edu

    No plants were safe from Gryposaurus monumentensis, a big boned, duck-billed dinosaur that could have eaten any vegetation it stumbled across. Its massive skull packed more than 300 teeth for slicing up fibrous greens. Hundreds more replacement teeth rested in its jawbone for the call-up to action.

    The dinosaur lived in the Late Cretaceous, about 75 million years ago on the western side of a giant, shallow ocean that split North America at that time. The plant-munching beast may have reached 30 feet long as an adult and had a 3-foot-long head.

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