A humerus or arm bone and a drawing of Mansourasaurus, a Cretaceous period dinosaur discovered in the Dakhla Oasis displayed in a lab at Mansoura university in Egypt (Photo: AP)
A rare 80 million-year-old dinosaur has been discovered in the Dakhla Oasis in western Egypt by a group of scientists from Mansoura University.
The dinosaur, called Mansourasaurus, is a Titanosaur — the world’s heaviest dinosaur — from the Cretaceous Age 145 million years ago. The discovery would provide palaeontologists — scientists specialised in the study of fossils — and geologists with needed information about the history of planet Earth.
The team that made the discovery is headed by Hisham Salam, head of the Mansoura University Vertebrate Palaeontology Centre, writing in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution and three palaeontologists: Sanaa Al-Sayed, Iman Al-Dawoudi and Sara Saber.
Most of the team initially expected Mansourasaurus, named after Mansoura University, to have been a member of an ancient African lineage in light of the theory that Africa was separated from Earth in the Cretaceous Age. But it turned out that its closest affinities were with European sauropods, characterised by their very long necks, long tails and small heads, Salam wrote in the journal.
“This provided the first compelling evidence of the movement of dinosaurs between Africa and Europe in the later part of the Cretaceous. A find like this shows how little we still know about the Late Cretaceous of Africa, and has motivated us all to keep up the search for new fossils in Egypt.”
The project that Salam heads aims to fill a 30 million-year gap following the extinction of dinosaurs in Africa in the Late Cretaceous period, from which very few fossils of land-living vertebrates were found.
While there were excavations in South America, Europe and Asia, no fossils were found in Africa.
The team had first discovered bones of the dinosaur in December 2013. In March 2014 they excavated it as a whole and took it to Mansoura University for research and published the findings in Nature.
After comparing it to other dinosaurs in South America, Europe and Asia the team found that it is a rare species never before discovered.
“Sixty-five per cent of the dinosaur was found. It is very similar to European dinosaurs so we think there must have been some kind of bridge between the two continents, Africa and Europe, since dinosaurs neither swim nor fly,” Salam said in a TV talk show last week.
The importance of the discovery is that this dinosaur existed some 15 million years before dinosaurs became extinct and thus it reveals a lot about the history and climate of Earth back then, professor of geology at Cairo University Abbas Al-Sharaki said, analysing the geological and historical importance of the discovery.
“The way dinosaurs disappeared is still a mystery. Some 65 million years ago, in the Stone Age, dinosaurs became extinct as well as three-quarters of all living creatures, both plants and animals,” Al-Sharaki explained.
There are three scientific explanations for the disappearance of these creatures. The first is based on the assumption that a huge earthquake separated the northern part of the earth including Europe from the southern part of the Earth including Africa. Then the Mediterranean Sea was formed.
“During this era there were signs of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. This is natural since whenever earthquakes occur there are cracks in the ground that cause lava to come to the surface and the atmosphere becomes full of smoke and gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia. Some of these gases were poisonous to these creatures and so they died,” Al-Sharaki said.
Another theory is that huge comets the size of mountains hit the planet and resulted in earthquakes. There are signs of these collisions in America and Africa like the ones in Egypt in the Oweinat Mountain.
The third theory says that the revolving axis of Earth changed which resulted in extreme climate change that killed the dinosaurs.
“Specialists need to study dinosaur bones and read the climactic circumstances and the changes that occurred to the dinosaurs at the time to know the true story of what happened,” Al-Sharaki said.
Team member Saber agrees. “We shall continue our search in the area for the rest of the dinosaur’s body. We may even discover fossils of other vertebrates that were living at the time in the area.”
“We do not have many of this type of dinosaurs discovered around the world. There was one discovered in Tunisia that was 150 million years old. Another, 95 million years old, was discovered in Algeria on the Moroccan border.” says Al-Sharaki.
Al-Sharaki said it was good the dinosaur was in good shape as this would help scientists know more about it and the era it lived in.
“Mansourasaurus is what scientists call a guiding fossil as it tells us the features of the creature, the climate and circumstances it lived in. We can read from it the climatic state that it lived in and whether it lived in a place full of rivers and lakes, etc.”
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly