Bizarre meat-eating dinosaur found in classic fossil site in Egypt’s Sahara desert
An Egyptian-American team of researchers has announced the discovery of a new species of large carnivorous dinosaur, or theropod, from a famous fossil site in Egypt’s Sahara desert. The fossil of an as-yet-unnamed species provides the first known record of the abelisaurid group of theropods from a mid-Cretaceous rock (about 98 million years old) known as the Bahariya Formation, which has been exposed in the Bahariya Oasis of the western Desert of Egypt.
In the early 1900s, this place famously supplied the original specimens of many notable dinosaurs—including the colossal sail-backed fish-eater Spinosaurus—which were subsequently destroyed in World War II. Abelisaurid fossils had previously been found in Europe and on many of today’s continents in the Southern Hemisphere, but never before in the Bahariya Formation. The team describes the discovery of the Bahariya abelisaurid in an article published today in Royal Society Open Science†
The study was led by Ohio University graduate student Belal Salem, based on work he initiated while serving as a member of the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center (MUVP) in Mansoura, Egypt.
The fossil in question, a well-preserved vertebra from the base of the neck, was recovered during a 2016 MUVP expedition to the Bahariya Oasis. The vertebra belongs to an abelisaurid, a species of bulldog-faced, small-toothed, small-armed theropod estimated to have been about six meters (20 feet) in body length. Abelisaurids – notably represented by the horned, demonic-looking Patagonian form Carnotaurus of “Jurassic World” and “Prehistoric Planet” fame – were among the most diverse and geographically widespread large predatory dinosaurs in the southern landmasses during the Cretaceous, last time period of the dinosaur age. Along with Spinosaurus and two other giant theropods (Carcharodontosaurus and Bahariasaurus), the new abelisaurid fossil adds yet another species to the framework of large predatory dinosaurs that roamed about 98 million years ago in what is now Egypt’s Sahara.
“During the mid-Cretaceous Period, the Bahariya Oasis would have been one of the most terrifying places on Earth,” said Salem, a new student in the biological sciences graduate program at Ohio University. “How all these huge predators could coexist remains a mystery, although it probably has to do with the fact that they ate different things and adapted to hunt different prey.”
The new vertebra has implications for the biodiversity of Cretaceous dinosaurs in Egypt and throughout the northern region of Africa. It is the oldest known fossil of Abelisauridae from northeastern Africa, and shows that these carnivorous dinosaurs spread over much of the northern part of the continent during the mid-Cretaceous period, from east to west from present-day Egypt to Morocco, so far south. as Niger and possibly beyond. Spinosaurus and carcharodontosaurus are also known from Niger and Morocco, and a close relative of Bahariasaurus has also been found in the latter country, suggesting that this fauna of large to giant theropods coexisted in much of North Africa at the time.
How might the discovery of a single cervical vertebra lead researchers to conclude that the fossil belongs to a member of Abelisauridae, a type of carnivorous dinosaur never before found in the Bahariya Formation? The answer is remarkably simple: It’s virtually identical to the same bone in other, better-known abelisaurids such as Argentina’s Carnotaurus and Madagascar’s Majungasaurus. As co-author and Salem’s graduate advisor Patrick O’Connor, who published a comprehensive study of the vertebral anatomy of Majungasaurus in 2007, explains, “I’ve examined abelisaur skeletons from Patagonia to Madagascar. My first glimpse of this specimen from photos showed none. there are doubts about his identity. Abelisaurid’s neck bones are so distinctive.”
The Bahariya Oasis is known in paleontological circles for the type specimens (the original, first discovered, name-bearing fossils) of several extraordinary dinosaurs in the early 20th century, including, most famously, Spinosaurus. Unfortunately, all Bahariya dinosaur fossils collected before World War II were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid on Munich in 1944.
As a graduate student in the early 2000s, study co-author Matt Lamanna helped make the first dinosaur discoveries from the oasis since the infamous 1944 air raid, including the giant sauropod (long-necked herbivorous dinosaur) Paralititan. “The Bahariya Oasis has achieved near-legendary status among paleontologists for producing the first known fossils of some of the world’s most amazing dinosaurs,” Lamanna says, “but for more than three-quarters of a century those fossils have existed only as images. in old books.” Fortunately, discoveries made on recent expeditions led by researchers from AUC and MUVP — such as the new abelisaurid vertebra — are helping to restore the paleontological legacy of this classical site. These expeditions have found a wealth of additional fossils that the researchers want to uncover in the near future.
As team member Sanaa El-Sayed, who co-led the 2016 expedition that collected the abelisaurid vertebra, explains, “This bone is just the first of many important new dinosaur fossils from the Bahariya Oasis.”
The Bahariya Formation promises to shed more light on mid-Cretaceous African dinosaurs and the vanished ecosystems they once lived in. Unlike more thoroughly explored rocks of the same age in Morocco that tend to yield isolated bones, the Bahariya Formation appears to preserve partial skeletons of dinosaurs and other land-dwelling animals with a relatively high frequency. The more bones preserved in the skeleton of a given fossil-backed species, the more paleontologists generally can learn about them. The propensity of the Bahariya Oasis to produce associated partial skeletons suggests that much remains to be learned from this historic site.
“As for the Egyptian dinosaurs, we really just scratched the surface,” notes study co-author Hesham Sallam. “Who knows what else there is?” Recent efforts by Professor Sallam and his collaborators from around the world ensure that students from Egypt take a leading role in the research process. Both the field expedition that found the new abelisaurid fossil and follow-up lab work were led by MUVP-based student researchers and contributing authors on the paper. “The collaboration with MUVP and its faculty and students, such as Belal Salem, continues to inspire me as I see the next generation of paleontologists playing a prominent role in sharing their views on the history of our planet,” added O’Connor .
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Belal S. Salem et al, First definitive record of Abelisauridae (Theropoda: Ceratosauria) from the Cretaceous Bahariya Formation, Bahariya Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt, Royal Society Open Science (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.220106
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