Fossil find brings widespread coverage

Dr Jonah Choiniere shows Wits Vuvuzela a piece from the Wits palaeoscience department collection  at Wits.

Dr Jonah Choiniere shows Wits Vuvuzela a piece from the Wits palaeoscience department collection at Wits. Photo: Nolwazi Mjwara

When Dr Jonah Choiniere moved to South Africa last year his colleagues thought he was crazy. It was shortly after the Marikana massacre and media coverage of the incident painted a grim picture of the country.

Now the Wits senior researcher has made world headlines with a dinosaur fossil discovery bringing global recognition and extensive media coverage valued at R2.7 million in PR value according to Wits Marketing.

Choiniere was part of a team of international researchers who found a new species of meat-eating dinosaur in north-western China.

Choiniere said the dinosaur lived over 161-million years ago, during the late Jurassic Period, and it was younger than one year old when it died.

The researcher almost didn’t find the dinosaur.

“I had been walking all over the fossil; my footprints were all over it. It was only after we had returned [from the site] to examine the fossil that we realised we had something new,” he said.

Choiniere and the team named the dinosaur Aorun zhaoi after a character in the Chinese story Journey to the west .

Choiniere moved to South Africa from New York City in November 2012. He said: “So many people were surprised that I wanted to move here. Even South Africans themselves are always surprised.”

He said he moved just after the Marikana incident. The US media had reported the event in a sensationalised way and this made people caution Choiniere about his decision.

“The US media had reported that there were fires all over Johannesburg during and after Marikana. When we got here we realised this was false,” he said.

He said he had fallen in love with South African things like Ultra Mel custard, braais, Emmarentia dam and the friendliness of South Africans.

The George Washington University graduate is a senior researcher at the Bernard Price Institute at Wits.

“Wits’ Palaeoscience department is one of the best in the world … and I am not just saying that. The collection here is impressive,” Choiniere said.

Choiniere recently returned from Elliot in the Eastern Cape where he was called in to dig out another dinosaur fossil.

The researcher said he wished South Africans knew how rich their country was in terms of dinosaur fossils.

“South Africans should really feel proud of what they have here. Your country is rich and special in many ways,” he said.