Nowadays lions, leopards and cheetahs may be the dominant carnivores of Lesotho, Africa, but they all pale in comparison to what might have been the largest predator to ever stalk the continent. Palaeontologists have found the first evidence of a previously unknown mega-carnivore dinosaur that lived much earlier than others of its size.

The evidence in question is a set of footprints left in rock that dates back 200 million years, to the Early Jurassic period. Back then, the area was apparently a watering hole or river bank, judging by the ripple marks and dessication cracks the team found in the surface.

With each print measuring 57 cm (22 in) long and 50 cm (20 in) wide, the three-toed tracks are the largest of their kind ever found in Africa. If they look like the kind of tracks your canary might leave if it was 10 ft tall, that's because they were made by a therapod – the group of dinosaurs birds are directly descended from.

Working backwards from the size of its feet, the researchers estimated that the new species, dubbed Kayentapus ambrokholohali, would have been about 9 m (30 ft) long and 3 m (10 ft) tall at the hip. That's almost twice the average size of other therapods of its time.

"The latest discovery is very exciting and sheds new light on the kind of carnivore that roamed what is now southern Africa," says Fabien Knoll, co-author of the study. "That's because it is the first evidence of an extremely large meat-eating animal roaming a landscape otherwise dominated by a variety of herbivorous, omnivorous and much smaller carnivorous dinosaurs. It really would have been top of the food chain."

But the newly discovered species wasn't just a big fish in its own little pond: its size put it ahead of its time on a global scale. While Kayentapus ambrokholohali would later be dwarfed by its cousins like the 12-m (39-ft) long T Rex, it arrived on the scene tens of millions of years earlier than most other "mega-therapods".

"This discovery marks the first occurrence of very large carnivorous dinosaurs in the Early Jurassic of Gondwana – the prehistoric continent which would later break up and become Africa and other landmasses," says Lara Sciscio, co-author of the study. "This makes it a significant find. Globally, these large tracks are very rare. There is only one other known site similar in age and sized tracks, which is in Poland."

The research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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