The fossil record is patchy at best, but there's a particularly large hole in time and space over Africa towards the end of the dinosaurs' reign. Now, paleontologists have discovered a new species in the Sahara Desert that fits right in that gap. Meet Mansourasaurus shahinae, a school-bus-sized sauropod that plodded around Africa about 80 million years ago, which is helping scientists piece together the geology and evolutionary situation of the Late Cretaceous.

Mansourasaurus belongs to the Titanosauria group, the gigantic long-necked herbivores that were common across the world during the Cretaceous period. While this group includes the largest land animals to ever walk the Earth, such as Patagotitan, the newest member of the family was a more modestly-sized animal. Mansourasaurus was "only" as long as a school bus, and weighed about the same as an African bull elephant.

The bones were discovered in the Sahara Desert in Egypt, by a dig team from Mansoura University. It's the most complete dinosaur skeleton from that time period found in that area, with fossil fragments including parts of the skull, lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, shoulders, forelimbs, hind foot and dermal plates.

But what's really important about the new species is the hole it plugs in our understanding of the time. African fossils dating back to the Late Cretaceous (about 100 million to 66 million years ago) are relatively scarce, leaving scientists with little information about the types of dinosaurs that inhabited the area at the time.

"Mansourasaurus shahinae is a key new dinosaur species, and a critical discovery for Egyptian and African paleontology," says Eric Gorscak, contributing author on a study describing the new species. "Africa remains a giant question mark in terms of land-dwelling animals at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Mansourasaurus helps us address longstanding questions about Africa's fossil record and paleobiology – what animals were living there, and to what other species were these animals most closely related?"

That time frame is of particular interest to scientists because the Earth was undergoing some pretty massive changes. Before then, all the continents we know today were locked together to form one giant land mass known as Pangaea, but it was in the process of breaking apart during the Cretaceous. Whether Northern Africa was still connected to Europe was unknown, but by analyzing some of the bone features, the team determined that Mansourasaurus was more closely related to European and Asian dinosaurs than others in Africa or South America.

"Africa's last dinosaurs weren't completely isolated, contrary to what some have proposed in the past," says Gorscak. "There were still connections to Europe."

The research was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Source: Ohio University

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