“Once in a million years”: Scientists discover strange duck-billed dinosaur fossils in Morocco

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By journalsofus.com

Minqaria robe

Minqaria bata was about the size of a pony (3-4 meters long) and closely resembled the European species of duck-billed dinosaur. Credit: Raúl Martín

An international team of scientists has discovered fossils of pony-sized duck-billed dinosaurs from Morocco. Their analysis reveals a surprising connection between the dinosaurs of Europe and Africa.

How did duck-billed dinosaurs, a group that evolved in North America, arrive in Morocco? At the end of Cretaceous During this period, 66 million years ago, high sea levels and the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea left Africa an isolated island continent. It was surrounded by water on all sides.

However, several years ago, remains of a member of the duck-billed dinosaur family, a group that evolved in North America, were found in Africa, raising the question of how they got there.

New insights from scientific reports

Now, a new study published in Scientific Reports reveals that duckbills not only managed to cross the Tethys Sea, but became very diverse once they colonized Africa, with at least three species It inhabited North Africa at the end of the Cretaceous.

Fossils from Morocco reveal new species of duck-billed dinosaur, Minqaria robe, which was between 3 and 4 meters long and weighed about 250 kg, approximately the size of a pony. Although the animal was small by duckbill standards, the skull bones were closely knit together, showing that it was mature.

Duckbill Brain Fossil

Duckbill skull fossil. Credit: Dr. Nick Longrich

The anatomy of the new duckbill closely resembles that of European species, suggesting that they swam or floated across several hundred kilometers of open water to colonize North Africa. Additionally, the larger bones suggest a third larger species, about 5 to 6 meters long.

The study was carried out by Dr Nicholas Longrich from the Department of Life Sciences and the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath, Xabier Pereda-Suberbiola from the University of the Basque Country, Nathalie Bardet from the National Museum of Natural History, and Nour-Eddine Jalil, from the National Museum of Natural History and Natural History Museum of Marrakech, Cadi Ayyad University.

Understanding Minqaria bata and its ecosystem

The new dinosaur has a name. Minqaria robe (Arabic for ‘beak’ and ‘duck’ respectively). Minqaria It closely resembles the only previously known African duckbill.Ajnabia odysseusbut the shape of the jaws and teeth is different, showing that it was a different species and probably occupied a different ecological niche.

Both Minqaria and Ajñabia They were part of the subfamily Lambeosaurinae, a group of duckbills known for their elaborate head crests. These crests were not purely for show; They housed long nasal passages that could blare like a horn.

“These were probably noisy, vocal animals,” said Dr. Longrich, who led the study. “Modern birds vocalize to find a mate or declare territories. But they are especially vocal in flocks: a flock of flamingos or a colony of nesting pelicans are extremely loud and communicate constantly.

“So it’s likely that, like birds, these duckbills were social animals.”

The brain is also large by dinosaur standards, a characteristic associated with social animals such as crows and primates.

Dr Longrich said: “There were probably very loud and boisterous herds (or flocks, if you prefer) of these little duckbills roaming the coasts of Morocco 66 million years ago.”

Minqaria It was a small animal, but the bones surrounding the brain are closely knit and partially fused, showing that it was a fully developed adult. The other Moroccan species, Ajñabia, was approximately the same size. Larger bones also studied by the team, including an arm bone and a thigh bone, suggest a third, larger species.

“Duckbills not only managed to reach Africa at the end of the Cretaceous,” Longrich said, “but once they did, they rapidly evolved to take advantage of open niches and became diverse.”

The importance of the discovery

At the end of the Cretaceous, sea levels were high, flooding much of the continents, and Earth’s land was fragmented by the breakup of Pangea and continental drift. That left Africa floating alone in the ocean, an island continent like modern-day Australia. But duck-billed dinosaurs, which evolved long after land connections were broken, somehow managed to reach Africa.

“It is extremely unlikely that dinosaurs could cross water to reach Africa,” Longrich said, “but improbable is not the same as impossible. And given enough time, improbable things become probable. Buy a lottery ticket every day and if you wait long enough, you will win.

“These ocean crossings might be once-in-a-million-year events, but the Cretaceous lasted almost 100 million years. “Many strange things will happen during that time, including dinosaurs crossing the seas.”

He noted that modern animals have sometimes been seen making unusual ocean voyages. Iguanas swept out to sea by a hurricane in the Caribbean turned up on another island, hundreds of kilometers away. A turtle from Aldabra Island was swept out to sea and washed up on the coast of Tanzania, 700 kilometers away. Deer, elephants and hippos swam to the island of Crete during the ice age.

“These duckbills are perhaps the most surprising find of my career,” Longrich said. “If you asked me what kind of dinosaurs we would find in Africa, then the last thing I would have imagined would be a duckbill, let alone three species.

“There are still a lot of unknowns in the fossil record, but if there weren’t, we wouldn’t need to keep collecting fossils.”

Dr Nour-Eddine Jalil from the Paris Museum of Natural History and Cadi Ayyad University, said: “Morocco’s phosphates offer new images of past biodiversity in a key period in the history of life, the last moments of life. era of dinosaurs followed by the diversification of mammals, heralding a new era.

Minqaria and their relatives are players who a few years ago we would never have assumed were on the African continent at that time.

“Despite their marine origin, these Moroccan phosphates also contain traces of vertebrates who lived on earth. They constitute one of the only windows to Africa’s terrestrial ecosystems. The dinosaur remains suggest great diversity, the three main groups of dinosaurs are represented: the carnivorous abelisaurids and the herbivorous sauropods and ornithischians.

Reference: “A new small duck-billed dinosaur (Hadrosauridae: Lambeosaurinae) from Morocco and dinosaur diversity in the late Maastrichtian of North Africa” by Nicholas R. Longrich, Xabier Pereda-Suberbiola, Nathalie Bardet and Nour-Eddine Jalil , February 13, 2024, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-53447-9

The study was funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

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