When Matt Lamanna saw photos of fossils discovered in the Sahara Desert of Egypt, his jaw dropped.
“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,” Lamanna paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said in an Ohio University news release.
Paleontologists discovered a long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur the length of a bus, giving valuable insight into Africa’s prehistoric times.
Paleontological researchers at Ohio University partnered with professors and students from the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Initiative in Mansoura, Egypt, in authoring the paper published Monday naming the new species Mansourasaurus shahinae. Lamanna was also a co-author.
Here are five reasons why the discovery was so jaw dropping.
It’s a rare find
African fossils from the final days of dinosaurs, also known as the Late Cretaceous period 100 to 66 million years ago, are hard to come by, leaving a hole in evolutionary history.
Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils in Africa are hard to come by because much of the land where there might be fossils is covered in vegetation, rather than covered in exposed rock as there is in the Rocky Mountain region, the Gobi Desert or Patagonia where fossils are much more common.
Mansourasaurus, being from this period, helps answer questions about Africa’s fossil record and paleobiology, Eric Gorscak, a postdoctoral research scientist at The Field Museum and a contributing author on the study, said. The specimen answers questions like “What animals were living there?” and “To what other species were these animals most closely related?”
The skeleton is nearly complete
Mansourasaurus belongs to Titanosauria, the species famous for including the largest land animals known to science. It would have weighed about the same as a african bull elephant.
Despite being such a large animal, Mansourasaurus’s skeleton is the most complete dinosaur specimen discovered from the end of the Cretaceous in Africa, so far. Parts of the skull, the 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 preserved.
It tells people about the link between Africa and Europe
During the Cretaceous Period the continents began splitting apart from supercontinent Pangea and moving toward today’s configuration. The degree to which Africa’s animals at this time may have been cut off from their neighboring continents and evolving on their own hasn’t been clear.
Through analyzing the fossils, researchers determined Mansourasaurus is more closely related to dinosaurs from Europe and Asia than those found farther south in Africa or in South America.
That proves the animals could’ve moved between Africa and Europe, even near the end of their reign. There were still connections between the continents that late in history.
Shows worldwide collaboration of universities and students
Experts on African paleontology from multiple institutions in Egypt and the U.S. contributed to the research. Several contributors were still students who were working on every aspect of the project from fieldwork, lab analysis and writing up the results.
The creature’s name, Mansourasaurus shahinae, actually honors both Mansoura University and a student, Mona Shahin, for her integral role in developing the university's vertebrate paleontology initiative
“The combined effort of multiple institutions across the globe ... exemplifies the collaborative nature of expeditionary sciences today,” Patrick O’Connor, study co-author and professor of anatomy at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, said.
Future discoveries to come
The discovering of Mansourasaurus can lead to further understanding of paleontological and evolutionary history.
“It’s like finding an edge piece that you use to help figure out what the picture is, that you can build from,” Gorscak said. “Maybe even a corner piece.”
The team that discovered the specimen is just getting started, Hesham Sallam, the team leader from the department of geology at Mansoura University, said.
“We have a group of well-trained vertebrate paleontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites,” Sallam said. “We expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come.”