ASSIUT—In an exploratory trip with colleagues from Mansoura University in December 2013, Sara Saber, a teaching assistant at Assiut University’s Faculty of Science, found dinosaur bones at Al-Dakhla oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, some 450 miles southwest of Cairo.
At the time, Saber and her colleagues did not have the equipment and funding to complete the research. But in February 2014, the team returned to the site, erected tents and managed, within three weeks, to excavate and bring out the fossilized remains of what is now Egypt’s and Africa’s most complete specimen of a dinosaur dating back to the late Cretaceous period.
“This is the sixth dinosaur to be discovered in Egypt,” said Saber. “But it is the first of its kind and the most complete one in Egypt and Africa that documents the last 30 million years of the Cretaceous era.”
The new Egyptian discovery brings a clearer understanding of dinosaurs’ evolution in the period just before they became extinct some 66 million years ago, according to Saber. It also sheds light on the climate and physical features of the Earth at that time.
Most of the dinosaur bones that scientists and scholars have unearthed so far have been found in Europe, North America and Asia. The general notion had been that Africa was cut off as a continent and thus its dinosaurs did not have a shared ancestry with those on other continents.
The newly found remains challenge that assumption. They constitute the most complete specimen of any mainland African land vertebrate from the Cretaceous and earlier periods. The scientists recovered parts of the dinosaur’s skull, lower jaw, neck and back vertebrae, ribs, shoulder and forelimb, back foot, and osteoderms, the bony plates embedded in the animal’s skin.
After comparing the new Egyptian specimen with dinosaur fossils from South America, Europe and Asia, the team found that it is a new species never before discovered. It was named Mansourasaurus shahinae after Mansoura University, to which the research team that discovered, extracted, photographed and cleaned its bones belongs.
The finding indicates that at least some dinosaurs in Africa, right before they went extinct, had close relatives on other continents, particularly Europe and Asia.
This discovery is important in the fields of fossils and geography. During the Cretaceous period, the world’s continents were still separating from what was once a single large continent called “Pangaea” and beginning to take the shapes known today, according to Sanaa el-Sayed, one of Saber’s colleagues in the research team.
The point of contact between the land masses that became Europe and Africa is still unknown, said el-Sayed, who is deputy director of the Vertebrate Paleontology Center and a teaching assistant at Mansoura University’s Faculty of Science. “Perhaps that point was a form of continuous protrusions in the Mediterranean region, whose shores extended to the boundary of Dakhla and Kharga oases at that time.”
The Mansoura University team also collaborated with scholars from Ohio University, the University of Southern California, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to conduct scientific reviews, analyze results, and discuss the species and sex of the dinosaur. The discovery was announced and the researchers’ findings were described in a study published this year in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“This was the Holy Grail—a well-preserved dinosaur from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs in Africa—that we paleontologists had been searching for, for a long, long time,” Matthew Lamanna, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said in a statement issued by the museum, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“We think that this relationship between this new Egyptian dinosaur and dinosaurs in Europe is a consequence of these animals’ ability to move back and forth … across the the predecessor of the present-day Mediterranean Sea,” Lamanna said.
Still, the work that goes into making such discoveries is not easy in Egypt, where, like in most Arab countries, financial support for scientific research is scarce. In Egypt, the amount allocated for scientific research does not exceed 0.78 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, which is less than the 1 percent dictated in Egypt’s Constitution, according to Mahmoud Sakr, head of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Egypt’s Ministry of Scientific Research.
The field team that excavated the bones was led by Hesham Sallam, an assistant professor of geology at Mansoura University, and included four female scholars and another male scholar, all of them Egyptians.
The team has been working for more than nine years to discover the remains of dinosaurs in the Western Desert “amid lots of challenges,” said Sallam. “The first of these challenges is the weak funding and lack of equipment necessary to do the work.”
The budget allocated for the researchers’ exploratory tours does not exceed 500 Egyptian pounds ($28), and one-fifth of that goes to taxes.
“We got financial support from Mansoura University, but it was not enough,” said Sallam. “The research continued at our own expense.” For example, the university could not provide a four-wheel-drive vehicle able to traverse the desert to accompany the team. This forced Sallam to use his own car.
The fact that most of the research team’s members are women was another complicating factor.
“We faced objections from our parents because of the long travel and stay in the desert,” said Iman el-Dawoudi, another member of the Mansoura University team. “However, we managed to convince them to let us do our job.”
The team also faced challenges related to the misperceptions of people in the area about the nature of their research and excavation work.
“Some of the area’s residents thought we were excavating for archaeological ruins and destroyed a unique set of samples after we left the place one time,” said el-Dawoudi. “So we started to set up the camps near the excavation sites to protect the samples until they were collected.”
Despite the difficulties, however, the Egyptian team’s ambitions are great. Sallam hopes that his team will be the nucleus for other Egyptian teams involved in the study of vertebrate fossils.
“I hope to establish a museum of natural history in Egypt and to set up qualified Egyptian research and exploration teams,” he said—and to provide “adequate and appropriate funding.”