Paleontologists piece together our planet’s past, but even they admit that they’re assembling a puzzle without knowing where all the pieces are hidden. So any time a major piece is unearthed —like in the recent discovery of a unique new dinosaur in the Egyptian desert—there is understandably a lot of excitement.
Scientists are now raising a glass to what paleontologist Matthew Lamanna calls “the holy grail of dinosaurs”: a specimen known as Mansourasaurus shahinae. The dinosaur’s discovery in the Sahara upends long-held theories about the dinosaurs that roamed Africa millions of years ago.
What makes this find so notable? Well, it shines a light on what was previously a mysterious period in Africa’s paleontological record, and demonstrates that some dinosaurs moved between southern Europe and North Africa at the end of the Mesozoic Era. Until Mansourasaurus shahinae’s discovery by paleontologists from Egypt’s Mansoura University, the fossil record for Africa during the Cretaceous period—the final chapter of the age of dinosaurs—was very sparse. Scientists were unclear about which dinosaurs lived on the African continent and how they may have mixed with dinosaurs who inhabited other land masses at the time.
A recent paper cataloging the new species in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that Mansourasaurus sahinae has more in common with European and Asian dinosaurs than with South American and southern African dinosaurs, which disproves previous theories that Africa’s dinosaur fauna existed in isolation.
The Mansourasaurus shahinae lived about 66 to 80 million years ago. It was around 33 feet long and weighed 5.5 tons, the size of a school bus and roughly the weight of an adult African bull elephant. It belongs to a group of animals called Titanasaurs, which included some of the largest land animals to ever walk the earth (Mansourasaurus pales in comparison to other titanosaurs like the Dreadnoughtus, which weighed a whopping 65 tons.)
Its 2013 discovery marks the most complete fossil recovered of any mainland African land vertebrate. Scientists recovered parts of Mansourasaurus shahinae’s lower jaw, skull, ribs, vertebrae and shoulders, as well as osteoderms, which are bony plates that sit in an animal’s skin and function as a sort of natural armor.
This landmark discovery provides scientists with yet more intriguing geological and paleontological information about what the world was like when dinosaurs roamed the earth.