Egyptian paleontologists have discovered a new species of dinosaur in the Sahara Desert that may help solve one of the biggest mysteries of the Cretaceous Era. Dubbed the “Holy Grail” of dinosaur remains, the newfound fossil is regarded as a “key new dinosaur species,” and could finally shed some light into dinosaur evolution in Africa.
Meet Mansourasaurus shahinae, an 80-million-year-old sauropod whose remains have just been unearthed in a portion of the Sahara Desert known as the Egyptian Western Desert. This long-necked herbivore lived during the Late Cretaceous and belonged to an exciting subgroup of sauropods known as Titanosauria.
Titanosaurs were the giants of the Cretaceous, and among the largest terrestrial animals that ever roamed the planet. The most notorious of them was the enormous Patagotitan mayorum, the largest dinosaur that ever existed. This 112-foot-long behemoth weighed 76 tons, or 152,000 pounds (almost as much as the Space Shuttle, or 10 African elephants), and stood 20 feet tall.
Other famous examples of titanosaurs include Argentinosaurus, Dreadnoughtus, and Shingopana songwensis, the smallest of the bunch, discovered last year in Tanzania and which was surprisingly more closely related to other titanosaurs found in South America than its African neighbors.
Yet, compared with its titanosaur cousins, Mansourasaurus shahinae seems quite modest as it didn’t boast the same impressive proportions. In fact, it only weighed about 14,000 pounds (the same as a modern African elephant), Gizmodo reports, and was roughly the length of a school-bus (it was 26 to 33 feet long, according to Science Alert).
What makes the newfound fossil so special is the condition and the integrity of the remains. The exceptionally well-preserved bones were found in the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Quseir Formation of the Dakhla Oasis, by a team of paleontologists from the Mansoura University in Egypt. According to team leader Dr. Hesham Sallam, from the university’s Department of Geology, the Mansourasaurus specimen is the most complete fossil of a Cretaceous dinosaur ever found in Africa.
Dr. Sallam describes this important discovery, detailed in a study recently published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, as “an amazing experience” for everyone at the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology (MUVP), the initiative which led the expedition into the desert.
“It was thrilling for my students to uncover bone after bone, as each new element we recovered helped to reveal who this giant dinosaur was,” Dr. Sallam said in a news release by Ohio University — the academic institution where one of the study’s contributing authors, Dr. Eric Gorscak, started working on this project.
“When I first saw pics of the fossils, my jaw hit the floor,” confessed study co-author Dr. Matt Lamanna, a dinosaur paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pennsylvania.
“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.”
The Mansourasaurus fossil represents an invaluable addition to the scanty fossil record of the region. African dinosaur fossils from the Late Cretaceous are notoriously difficult to find, especially in a such complete form. But the MUVP scientists were fortunate enough to unearth not only the titanosaur’s skull and lower jaw, but also several vertebrae, ribs, portions of its shoulder and forelimb, as well as a piece of its hind foot. In addition, the paleontologists also discovered evidence that Mansourasaurus had tough, bony plates embedded in its skin, which could have come in handy for fending off predators.
“The skeleton provided many points of comparisons to other titanosaurs in order to determine if it was a new species and what made Mansourasaurus unique,” Dr. Gorscak, from The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said in a statement.
One of its most distinct features, Dr. Gorscak explained, was its lower jaw, which set the animal apart from other titanosaurs.
“For example, the Mansourasaurus‘ lower jaw has one of the lowest tooth counts for a titanosaur, with 10 teeth on either side. Furthermore, the junction between the left and right lower jaws is well developed, giving the animal a bit of a chin,” Dr. Gorscak revealed.
But the most important aspect of this discovery has to do with the fossil’s age. Mansourasaurus is one of the few African dinosaurs that date back to the Late Cretaceous, a time of monumental geological and geographic changes. It was during the Cretaceous that the continents, previously fused together as the supercontinent of Pangea, began drifting apart and shaping the world as we know it today.
Until now, it was thought that the splitting of the continents irrevocably separated dinosaurs in Africa from their cousins in Europe, forcing them to evolve in isolation from one another. But the Mansourasaurus fossil revealed African dinosaurs weren’t completely cut off from their European counterparts, as previously believed.
“Mansourasaurus helps us address longstanding questions about Africa’s fossil record and paleobiology — what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related,” Dr. Gorscak clarified in the news release.
A close examination of the bones showed Mansourasaurus was more closely related to the dinosaurs of Europe and Asia than to those in southern Africa or even South America, notes LiveScience.
This suggests that some dinosaurs were moving between Africa and Europe during the Late Cretaceous, travelling across pathways that existed between the two continents, Dr. Sallam points out.
“Africa’s last dinosaurs weren’t completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past,” Dr. Gorscak further explains, showing that African dinosaurs still had “connections to Europe.”
“It seems to suggest Africa was a mixture of Northern and Southern Hemisphere [dinosaurs],” he said in a statement for National Geographic.
Because of its Late Cretaceous origin, Mansourasaurus is now regarded as a “key new dinosaur species,” as Dr. Gorscak puts it, since it could finally begin to explain how African dinosaurs evolved.