A long-necked dinosaur unearthed in Egypt has yielded the first evidence of contact between African and European dinosaurs shortly before the creatures disappeared for good about 66 million years ago, scientists said Monday.
Given a dearth of dinosaur skeletons from Africa, palaeontologists have battled to reconstruct a map of how the animals spread across the world after the "supercontinent" Pangaea broke up into different land masses some 200 million years ago.
Many believed Africa's dinosaurs were completely isolated from cousins on other continents by the time their heyday was brought to an abrupt end, possibly by an asteroid strike.
The new specimen, an elephant-sized plant-eater given the name Mansourasaurus, sheds new light on Afro-European dinosaur ties, its discoverers said.
Looking at its physiology, the team concluded that Mansourasaurus was "more closely related to dinosaurs from Europe and Asia than it is to those found farther south in Africa or in South America," according to a statement from Ohio University.
"This, in turn, shows that at least some dinosaurs could move between Africa and Europe near the end of these animals' reign. Africa's last dinosaurs weren't completely isolated."
The remains of the Mansourasaurus, found at the Dakhla Oasis in central Egypt, are the most complete of any mainland African land vertebrate during an even larger time span, the roughly 30 million years before the dinosaur mass extinction 66 million years ago, said paleontologist Hesham Sallam of Egypt's Mansoura University, who led the study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
The scientists recovered parts of its skull, lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, shoulder and forelimb, back foot and osteoderms.
A lot of Africa is covered in grasslands, savannas and rain forests that obscure underlying rock where fossils may be found, said postdoctoral researcher Eric Gorscak of the Field Museum in Chicago, who was formerly at Ohio University.
While as massive as a bull African elephant, Mansourasaurus was modestly sized next to titanosaur cousins such as South America's Argentinosaurus, Dreadnoughtus and Patagotitan and Africa's Paralititan, some exceeding 100 feet (30 meters) long.
"Mansourasaurus, though a big animal by today's standards, was a pipsqueak compared to some other titanosaurs," said paleontologist Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
"When I first saw pics of the fossils, my jaw hit the floor," said Lamanna. "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."