Despite being ultra-feather-weight for its class, the long-necked Malawisaurus could start (and probably win) a shoving match with a double-decker bus.

It’s one of the smallest titanosaurs known and would be a puppy compared to the biggest ever dinosaur, Patagotitan, but unlike the others it didn’t lose its head and even inspired a whole cultural centre. Sort of.

Titanosaurs’ skulls are about as resilient as the dinos are huge, so to find any fossil parts at all is a bit of an event. Into the arena of 1924 trundles Malawisaurus, telling us that its skull was probably short and high. But, as always, fossils can raise as many questions as they answer. For example, dino-tron, or no dino-tron?

Like other titanosaurs, Malawisaurus was also found with osteoderms – armoured scales – which presumably covered its back. Armoured long-necks sound pretty awesome, as well as understandable when you realise what was kicking around elsewhere on the Gondwanian supercontinent 112 million years ago.

Early Cretaceous Africa was resting on South America’s shoulder like a drunken buddy, and the latter was home to Giganotosaurus, a set of walking jaws even larger than T-Rex. On the other hand, although the scales were pretty hefty at half a ruler lengthways – each – some palaeontologists don’t think they would have worked as armour, because they were mostly hollow. Instead, they could have stored minerals for when food was scarce, or helped boost the calcium when Mum was brewing up eggs. The eggs of other titanosaurs have given an insight into body temperature too, with 37°C/99°F suggested in some cases. Not so cold-blooded now eh?

Dinosaur details are forever being revised though, and at one point Malawisaurus had more of an identity crisis than the jaguarundi.

Its first moniker was the super-imaginative “Gigantosaurus”.  (Don’t look up, that wasn’t a typo.) Then we realised it was an invalid name for a dinosaur from the Diplodocus family, and it was changed to “Tornieria”, in honour of the German herpetologist Gustav Tornier. After closer inspection it was reclassified in 1991 as “Janenschia”, this time in tribute to German palaeontologist Werner Janensch. By the time it was reclassified yet again in 1993, we had apparently run out of tributes and just named it after the country it was found in. But this is more than appropriate, as this “little” sauropod has boosted the profile of the small town Karonga near the Tanzanian border.

Malawisaurus also shared a (fossil) bed with Homo rudolfensis, a 2.5 million year old human, and helped inspire the Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga. Museums weren’t really a thing in rural areas at the turn of the millennium, but it still stands today as a cultural exchange and tourist attraction, with Malawisaurus’ skeleton in pride of place. Its relatives may have made the earth move, but how many made the earth move for a building?


Latin: Malawisaurus dixeyi (Dixey’s Malawi lizard)

What? Long-necked, “armoured” plant-eating dinosaur

Where? Er, Malawi and surrounding area, during the Early Cretaceous, 121-112 million years ago

How big? Estimates from 9 m/ 30ft to 16 m/ 52ft long,  4.3 m /14 ft tall.

Endangered? No, we’re 112 million years too late

Probable motto: [tumbleweed over scattered bones]

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

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Geggel, Laura. 2017. “Ginormous, 70-ton titanosaur is the largest dinosaur on record“. Live Science.

Gomani, Elizabeth M. 2005. “Sauropod dinosaurs from the Early Cretaceous of Malawi“. Palaeontologia Electronica. 8(1).

Jacobs, Louis. 2000. “Quest for the African dinosaurs: ancient roots of the modern world“. John Hopkins University Press.

Jacobs, Louis L. et al. 1993. “New material of an Early Cretaceous titanosaurid sauropod dinosaur from Malawi”. Palaeontology 36(3): 523-534.

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Yong, Ed. 2011. “Titan dinosaur may have stored minerals in skin bones“. National Geographic.

Featured image credit: Warpaintcobra