New dinosaur discovered beneath the Sahara

The last days of the dinosaurs in Africa has been a mystery for scientists, where the fossil record covering the Late Cretaceous period – the period up to 66 million years ago, when the extinction event happened – is very patchy.

But now a new fossil discovered by scientists buried beneath the Sahara desert in Egypt is helping scientists fill in the blanks.

The giant dinosaur has been called Mansourasaurus shahinae, and was the length of a bus.

It was long-necked, ate plants and had bony plates embedded in its skin, according to the research team at the University of Ohio.

Mansourasaurus belongs to a group of sauropods, dinosaurs with long necks that ate plants, called Titanosauria, which were common throughout the Cretaceous period.

Titanosaurs include the largest land animals known to science, although Mansourasaurus isn’t among the largest, being roughly the weight of an African bull elephant.

Its skeleton is the most complete dinosaur specimen ever discovered from that period and location.

Dr Matt Lamanna from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a study coauthor and dinosaur palaeontologist, said: “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 palaeontologists had been searching for for a long, long time.”

The left dentary, or lower jaw bone, of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae as it was found in rock of the Upper Cretaceous-aged (~80 million-year-old) Quseir Formation of the Dakhla Oasis, Egypt. Credit: Hesham Sallam, Mansoura University

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The lower jaw bone of the new dinosaur as it was found in rock in Egypt. Pic: Hesham Sallam, Mansoura University

Its fossilised remains were excavated by the Mansoura University Vertebrate Palaeontology (MUVP) initiative, a project led by Dr Hesham Sallam of the Department of Geology at Mansoura University in Egypt.

Dr Sallam is the lead author of the paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that names the new species, honouring both Mansoura University and Ms Mona Shahin for her integral role in developing the MUVP.

According to Dr Sallam: “The discovery and extraction of Mansourasaurus was such an amazing experience for the MUVP team. 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.”

“Mansourasaurus shahinae is a key new dinosaur species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African palaeontology,” said Dr Eric Gorscak, a postdoctoral research scientist at The Field Museum and a contributing author on the study.

Dr Gorscak, who began work on the project as a doctoral student at Ohio University where his research focused on African dinosaurs, said: “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 palaeobiolog – what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related?”

The researcher added that since so little is known about African dinosaurs, “it’s like finding an edge piece that you use to help figure out what the picture is, that you can build from. Maybe even a corner piece.”

Dr Sallam added: “What’s exciting is that our team is just getting started. Now that we have a group of well-trained vertebrate palaeontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites, we expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come.”

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