Fossils in Africa from the Late Cretaceous time period – around 100 to 66 million years ago – are rare. Scientists have been largely kept in the dark about the course of dinosaur evolution on the continent, but a new dinosaur species, Mansourasaurus shahinae, recently unearthed in the Sahara Desert in Egypt, now offers some clues. Carnegie Museum of Natural History dinosaur paleontologist Matt Lamanna said in a statement, “When I first saw pics of the fossils, my jaw hit the floor. This was the Holy Grail – a well-preserved dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs in Africa – that we paleontologists had been searching for for a long, long time.”
A team led by Hesham Sallam of Mansoura University in Egypt unearthed the fossils. Mansourasaurus shahinae was a long-necked dinosaur with bony plates in its skin, and consumed plants. According to a release from Ohio University, the new species belongs to a group of sauropods, Titanosaurs, which includes the largest land animals we know about. But Mansourasaurus was a moderate-sized titanosaur, weighing about as much as an African bull elephant. Ohio University said its skeleton is “the most complete dinosaur specimen so far discovered from the end of the Cretaceous in Africa” – parts of the skull, lower jaw, ribs, neck and back vertebrae, shoulder and forelimb, hind foot, and dermal plates were preserved.
While it’s thrilling to find a new dinosaur species, there are other reasons why paleontologists are so excited about this find. During the Cretaceous Period, the continents joined together as the supercontinent Pangea started to split apart. The lack of a fossil record in Africa from the Late Cretaceous Period has been maddening for researchers who want to know how well-connected Africa was to Europe and Southern Hemisphere landmasses.
Sallam and his team scrutinized the bones to determine, per the press release, the dinosaur was “more closely related to dinosaurs from Europe and Asia than it is to those found farther south in Africa or in South America” – so some of the creatures could have moved between Africa and Europe.
The Field Museum postdoctoral research scientist Eric Gorscak, who was part of the study, said, “Africa’s last dinosaurs weren’t completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past. There were still connections to Europe.”
The journal Nature Ecology and Evolution published the work online yesterday. 10 researchers from institutions in Egypt and the United States contributed.