When it comes to looks, the long-necked dinosaur Mansourasaurus shaninae isn’t all that remarkable. But the new species of sauropod is still turning heads among paleontologists.
Discovered in Egypt, the creature is one of the few dinosaur fossils found so far in Africa that dates to the late Cretaceous period, roughly 80 to 66 million years ago. This time marks the final chapter in the age of dinosaurs, which came to an abrupt end when a giant meteor smacked into what is now the Yucatán Peninsula.
Africa’s fossil record during the late Cretaceous is sparse, says study leader and Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Matthew Lamanna. That means scientists aren’t sure which dinosaurs lived where across the continent during the period, and how much they mixed with dinosaurs on other ancient land masses.
Paleontologists at Mansoura University in Egypt discovered the Mansourasaurus fossils in the Sahara in 2013. Lamanna and a group of paleontologists from various research institutions then flew to Egypt to examine the fossil. Their work categorizing the new species appears today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“The end of the age of dinosaurs in Africa is one of the final frontiers for dinosaur paleontology,” Lamanna says. The new find “adds a bit of hard evidence to what African fauna was like” during this crucial time period.
When dinosaurs first emerged, they populated a single land mass made up of connected continents. But as those continents began to shift and break apart, many terrestrial dinosaurs became separated by vast oceans.
Some paleontologists theorized that, like modern-day Australia, Cretaceous Africa was essentially an island continent filled with unique species. Other experts suggested the African land mass still had ties to its neighbours.
“Was Africa an isolated continent, or were there connections with the land masses surrounding it?” asks Field Museum paleontologist Eric Gorscak. The new find, he says, suggests the latter. So far, Mansourasaurus seems very similar to Cretaceous sauropods found in Europe and Asia, suggesting that the Egyptian dinosaur did not evolve in isolation.
“It seems to suggest Africa was a mixture of Northern and Southern Hemisphere [dinosaurs],” he says.
The discovery therefore also provides clues about Cretaceous geography, says Michael Habib, a paleontologist from the University of Southern California who was not involved with the study.
The Jurassic period (199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago) was characterized by a warm, wet climate that gave rise to lush vegetation and abundant life. Many new dinosaurs emerged—in great numbers. Among them were stegosaurs, brachiosaurs, allosaurs, and many others. ARTWORK BY PUBLIC PHOTO/PHOTO RESEARCHERS INC