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Scientists discover 'the Holy Grail of dinosaurs' in Africa

An artist's reconstruction of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae on a coastline in what is now the Western Desert of Egypt approximately 80 million years ago. MUST CREDIT: Andrew McAfee, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Paleontologist Matthew Lamanna can still remember the day in 2014 when a colleague, Hesham Sallam, emailed him detailed pictures of fossils that had just been unearthed by his team in Egypt.

From one photo, depicting the remains of a large lower jaw bone, Lamanna knew right away that Sallam had found a dinosaur.

"No pun intended, my jaw did almost literally hit the floor when I saw that," Lamanna, the principal dinosaur researcher at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, told The Washington Post. "When you stare at dinosaur bones for a lot of your life, you learn to recognize parts of dinosaur bones pretty instantaneously."

The left dentary, or lower jaw bone, of the new titanosaurian dinosaur Mansourasaurus shahinae as it was found in rock.

But this wouldn't just be any dinosaur. Sallam and his team at Egypt's Mansoura University had discovered a new species from the late Cretaceous Period, between 100 to 66 million years ago, an era sometimes referred to as the end of the "Age of Dinosaurs."

Even nearly four years after the discovery, the giddiness in Lamanna's voice is evident as he talked about the importance of the initial pictures. (In fact, his excitement was so palpable that he was later asked to join the team, he added.) The newly discovered dinosaur, formally named Mansourasaurus shahinae, was part of the Titanosauria group of sauropods - long-necked plant-eaters that include "some of the largest animals known to science," according to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which announced the finding Monday.

Student Mai El-Amir, left, and Professor Hesham Sallam of Mansoura Univ. prepare to glue bones of the new titanosaurian dinosaur

The Mansourasaurus would have been roughly the length of a school bus and weighed about the same as an African bull elephant, with bony plates embedded along its back.

But more important, "late Cretaceous" dinosaur fossils in Africa had long eluded paleontologists, partly because vegetation covers much of the land where they might be found there, the museum stated. This skeleton, however, would ultimately be surprisingly complete, including the skull, the lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, most of the shoulder and forelimb, part of the hind foot and pieces of dermal plates.

"These things evolved 220 million years ago and went extinct about 66 million years ago," Lamanna said. "Even like part of a tail from one of these sauropods would have been great. . . . The fact that Hesham [Sallam] had found a dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs and it was a sauropod that had part of a head, it was just completely bonkers."

He paused.

"It was - I don't really exaggerate - it was like seeing the Holy Grail of dinosaurs," Lamanna said.

The research team published their findings on the Mansourasaurus shahinae Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Scientists said the fossils will help fill in important gaps about how dinosaurs evolved in Africa during a period when the continents had neared the end of their shift from a single giant land mass to where they are, more or less, today.

"Africa remains a giant question mark in terms of land-dwelling animals at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs," Eric Gorscak, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Field Museum, said in a statement. "Mansourasaurus helps us address long-standing questions about Africa's fossil record and paleobiology - what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related?"

As it turns out, Gorscak added, analyzing the Mansourasaurus's fossils have revealed that it was more closely related to dinosaurs from Europe and Asia than those in southern Africa or South America.

"Africa's last dinosaurs weren't completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past. There were still connections to Europe," Gorscak said. But he added that there was far more to be discovered from the Mansourasaurus fossils. "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."

The scientific name Mansourasaurus shahinae is not only a nod to Mansoura University but also to Mona Shahin, who helped develop the school's vertebrate paleontology initiative. The Mansourasaurus fossils have been moved to the fossil collection at the university, about 75 miles north of Cairo, and will stay there to be studied. Lamanna also hopes the finding will be a boon to paleontology in Africa, where field research has lagged compared with that in North America, Europe and Asia.

"That's not because the southern hemisphere continents have fewer dinosaurs or less interesting dinosaurs," Lamanna said. "It's just the simple fact that paleontology has occurred for longer in (Europe and America)."

Sallam, who led the Mansourasaurus expedition, agreed.

"What's exciting is that our team is just getting started," Sallam said. "Now that we have a group of well-trained vertebrate paleontologists here in Egypt, with easy access to important fossil sites, we expect the pace of discovery to accelerate in the years to come."