“Once in a Million Years” – Scientists discover strange fossils of duck-billed dinosaurs in Morocco

The bata's beak was about the size of a pony (3-4 meters long) and closely resembled European species of duck-billed dinosaurs. Credit: Raul Martin

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

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

Several years ago, the 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 It reveals that not only did duckbills manage to cross the Tethys Sea, but they became extremely diverse once they colonized Africa, with at least three of them. Classify Inhabited North Africa at the end of the Cretaceous period.

Excavations from Morocco reveal a new species of duck-billed dinosaur. They became beakedIt was about 3-4 meters long and weighed about 250 kg, roughly the size of a foal. Although the animal was small by duckbill standards, the skull bones were tightly knit together, indicating that it was mature.

Duckbill brain fossil

Duckbill brain fossil. Credit: Dr. Nick Longrich

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

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The study was conducted by Dr Nicholas Longrich from the Department of Life Sciences and the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath, Xavier Pereda-Superbiola from the University of the Basque Country, Nathalie Bardet from the National Museum of Natural History, and Noureddine Jalil, from the National Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum of Marrakesh, Cadi Ayyad University.

Understanding the beaked pata and its ecosystem

The new dinosaur has been named They became beaked (In Arabic it means “beak” and “duck” respectively). Rostrally It closely resembles the only previously known African duckbillOdysseus, a foreignerBut the shape of the jaws and teeth is distinctive, indicating that it was a different species, perhaps occupying a different ecological niche.

both of them Rostrally And Foreign They were part of the subfamily Lambeosaurinae, a group of duckbills known for their elaborate head crests. These peaks weren't just for show; It had long nasal passages that could resonate like a horn.

“These were probably very vocal animals,” said Dr. Longrich, who led the study. “Modern birds vocalize to find mates, or to advertise specific territories. But they make especially loud noises in flocks – a flock of flamingos or a nesting colony of pelicans is very noisy, constantly communicating.

“So it is likely that these birds, like birds, were social animals.”

The brain is also large by dinosaur standards, a trait associated with social animals like crows and primates.

“There may have been very noisy flocks – or herds if you prefer – of these little duck-billed birds roaming the coasts of Morocco 66 million years ago,” Dr Longrich said.

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Rostrally It was a young animal, but the bones surrounding the brain are tightly knit together and partially fused, indicating that it was a fully developed adult animal. Other Moroccan species, ForeignIt was about the same size. The team also studied larger bones, including the arm bone and femur, suggesting the existence of a third, larger species.

“Not only were duckbills able to reach Africa at the end of the Cretaceous, but once they did, they quickly evolved to take advantage of open niches and became diversified,” Longrich said.

The importance of discovery

At the end of the Cretaceous, sea levels were high, submerging most of the continents, and Earth's landmasses were fragmented by the breakup of Pangea and continental drift. This is what made Africa float alone in the ocean, an island continent like modern Australia. But duck-billed dinosaurs, which evolved long after land connections were cut off, somehow managed to reach Africa.

“It is extremely unlikely that dinosaurs could have crossed the waters to reach Africa, but unlikely is not the same as impossible,” Longrich said. “Given enough time, the improbable becomes possible. Buy a lottery ticket every day, and if you wait long enough, you will You win.

“These ocean crossings may be once-in-a-million-year events, but the Cretaceous Period lasted approximately 100 million years. A lot of strange things would have happened in that time, including dinosaurs crossing the seas.

He noted that modern animals have sometimes been seen making unusual journeys in the ocean. A hurricane iguana has washed ashore in the Caribbean and washed up on another island hundreds of kilometers away. A turtle from Aldabra Island was washed out to sea and washed ashore in Tanzania, 700 kilometers away. Deer, elephants and hippopotamuses swam to Crete during the Ice Age.

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“This duck bill is probably the most surprising discovery of my career,” Longrich said. “If you ask me what kind of dinosaurs we find in Africa, the duck-billed is the last thing I would have imagined, let alone three species.

“There is still a lot unknown in the fossil record, but if it wasn't there, we wouldn't need to keep collecting fossils.”

Dr. Noureddine Jalil from the Natural History Museum in Paris and Cadi Ayyad University said: “Morocco phosphate provides new pictures of past biodiversity in a key period in the history of life, followed by the final moments of the age of dinosaurs. With the diversity of mammals, heralding a new era.

Rostrally His relatives are players whose presence on the African continent at that time, a few years ago, we would not have assumed.

“Despite their marine origin, these Moroccan phosphates also contain traces of phosphate Vertebrates that lived on earth. It is one of the only windows into Africa's terrestrial ecosystems. Dinosaur remains indicate great diversity, with all three major groups of dinosaurs represented, namely abelisaurid carnivores, sauropod herbivores and ornithischians.

Reference: “A New Small Duck-billed Dinosaur (Hadrosauridae: Lambeosaurinae) from Morocco and Dinosaur Diversity in Late Maastrichtian North Africa” by Nicholas R. Longrich, Xavier Pereda-Superbiola, Nathalie Bardet and Noureddine 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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