S u m m a r y :
New Egyptian dino named Mansourasaurus shahinae helps us connect the two continents, Africa and Europe. The findings are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
An Egyptian, Saharan Dinosaur
Creatures (and events) of the past have left behind fossil ‘breadcrumbs’ leading us to their lost stories. This is how researchers have been able to not only illustrate the physical appearances of these forgotten animals and plants but also reconstruct the life conditions back then. However, this does not come without challenges—so much remains undiscovered as information gaps reveal themselves to be wider and wider. For instance, we are clueless as to the fate of the last dinosaurs of Africa.
The few fossils that have been gathered from the Late Cretaceous era (from 100 to 66 million years ago) span over lengthy periods, leaving investigators without answers pertaining to dinosaur evolution in Africa. Thankfully, a new study showcasing a new species spotted in Egypt’s Sahara Desert might help piece the story together.
“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.” says study coauthor Dr. Matt Lamanna.
Meet Mansourasaurus shahinae
The newly-found Egyptian dinosaur has been named Mansourasaurus shahinae, after the location of its discovery; its fossils were found at Mansoura, Egypt, by a team led by Dr. Hesham M. Sallam from Mansoura University. The dinosaur is described as having been as long as a school bus, with bony plates in its skin and a long neck that suggests it fed on plants.
“Mansourasaurus shahinae is a key new dinosaur species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African paleontology,” says study author Dr. Eric Gorscak.
“Africa remains a giant question mark in terms of land-dwelling animals at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. 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?”
Learning About Continents From Dinosaurs
The missing Late Cretaceous fossil record in Africa is particularly problematic because of the tremendous geological and geographic changes to which the continents were subject at that time. Back when the dinosaurs were relatively new to the Earth, during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, the different continents are thought to all have been bound together, constituting the massive landmass, supercontinent Pangaea. Then, pieces of the latter began drifting apart during the Cretaceous period, until the continents became as we know them today. The details of these events remain out of our reach, though. For instance, we do not know how much of Africa was linked with other continents such as Europe and those found further south; this creates a chain of other questions like how animals from Africa came to be separated from their neighbours, and how this led to evolution. This is where the new study comes in.
From the analysis of Mansourasaurus’ bones, Sallam and his colleagues have concluded that the Egyptian dino is more closely related to others from Europe and Asia than from those found in the south of Africa, and in South America. This implies that some dinosaurs might have moved between Africa and Europe during the late dinosaur period.
“Africa’s last dinosaurs weren’t completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past,” says Gorscak. “There were still connections to Europe.”
“The discovery of rare fossils like this sauropod dinosaur helps us understand how creatures moved across continents, and gives us a greater understanding of the evolutionary history of organisms in this region,“ says Dena Smith, a program director from the foundation which partially funded the study.
Piecing Together Mansourasaurus
Mansourasaurus was a Titanosaurian sauropod; a group believed to have lived in huge numbers throughout the globe during the Cretaceous period. A defining trait of our new dinosaur, setting it apart from other Titanosaurs, is that it was of average size, and not as huge as its counterparts. Its weight is comparable to that of an African bull elephant, say the researchers.
The skeleton of the Mansourasaurus is also the most complete dinosaur one belonging to the late Cretaceous period in Africa; its skull, lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, most of the shoulder and forelimb, part of the hind foot, and pieces of dermal plates were all well-preserved.
Sallam and his team are not positive that more questions will be answered.
“What’s exciting is that our team is just getting started. Now that we have a group of well-trained vertebrate paleontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites, we expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come,” says Sallam.