Western Illinois University has a paleontological rock star among its faculty. Associate Professor Matthew Bonnan is part of the discovery team who found and described a new dinosaur in South Africa named Aardonyx, which means “earth claw.”

Western Illinois University has a paleontological rock star among its faculty.

Associate Professor Matthew Bonnan is part of the discovery team who found and described a new dinosaur in South Africa named Aardonyx, which means “earth claw.”

The team’s findings, titled “A new transitional sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Early Jurassic of South Africa and the evolution of sauropod feeding and quadrupedalism,” have been accepted for publication in the internationally renowned journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“It will be awhile before I completely appreciate what this means, but on a personal level, it’s a childhood dream come true,” said Bonnan. “It’s absolutely fulfilling.”

Between 2004 and 2007, Bonnan met with his team in Free State, South Africa, three times with funding from a National Geographic grant and from WIU’s College of Arts and Sciences and Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research.

“I always want to make sure people understand it’s a team effort,” said Bonnan. “It’s not like I just woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m going to find a new dinosaur today.’”

Bonnan’s role on the team was helping excavate the animal and determining what it did while it was alive.

Other team members include Adam Yates, Ph.D., who dealt with systematics and taxonomy; Geologist Johann Neveling, who determined the time frame; University of Witwatersrand graduate student Mark Blackbeard, who found the first bones of Aardonyx; Histologist Anusuya Chinsamy, who determined that the animal was still young, and Celeste Yates, who did much of the meticulous work cleaning the bones with dental tools. It is for Celeste that Aardonyx received it’s species name “celestae.”

“Through two pregnancies, she worked on the bones and revealed more anatomy to us than if it had never been done,” said Bonnan. “She made our job that much easier to compare them and figure out that we had a new dinosaur.”

Bonnan said finding the new dinosaur has made him and other paleontologists reconsider how and why sauropods, previously known as brontosaurus, became so large.
In addition to fulfilling childhood dreams, Bonnan said the experience will help him attain future grants, as well as benefit his students.

“My students are getting more updated information and seeing science as a process, rather than as some recipe out of a book,” said Bonnan.

Prior to his career at WIU, Bonnan said his parents were the only ones who encouraged him into paleontology, while others told him “not to bother with it.”

Today, Bonnan encourages others to pursue their dreams realistically and flexibly.

“We spend the majority of our adult lives working,” said Bonnan. “It’s better to do something you love than something you don’t, and then it won’t feel like work.”

The McDonough County Voice