Dino 9 pic: View of the hand and foot of Aorun zhaoi. Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute Senior Researcher Dr. Jonah Choiniere stands close to the spot where Aorun zhaoi was found in the Gobi desert in northwestern China. This small meat eating dinosaur is a new speices that is an ancient ancestor to modern day birds. Picture: Handout/Supplied

Johannesburg - Dr Jonah Choiniere almost didn’t find the small dinosaur he helped to name.

He left a trail of footprints around the piece of fossilised leg that lay exposed in the Gobi desert and wandered off.

What the leg-bone belonged to was a new species of therapod or meat-eating dinosaur that is considered to be an ancient ancestor of birds.

The dinosaur that was discovered in the region of Xinjiang in northwest China has been named Aorun zhaoi, and appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

The story goes that Choiniere, who is a senior researcher at the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute, nearly missed the find when he was a part of a joint team of Chinese and US researchers fossil-hunting in the Gobi Desert.

Looking for a fossils in the Gobi, said Choiniere, usually meant taking a day’s supply of water and food and walking into the desert.

Choiniere headed out one day and returned not having found anything.

It was then that his colleague, Professor James Clark, came up to him and asked if he had seen the therapod bone.

“He told me that my footprints were all around it,” said Choiniere.

The dinosaur and the rock it was surrounded in was excavated, but it was only back in the lab that they realised what they had.

“We had no idea there was a skull in there.

“And we realised that we had something new,” said Choiniere.

The team of scientists believe the dinosaur, which lived about 160 million years ago, was just over a metre long. It weighed about 1.5kg.

By examining the bones using a microscope, they realised that Aorun was a juvenile, less than a year old.

The team decided to name the dinosaur after the character the Dragon King in the Chinese epic tale Journey to the West. - The Star