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The discovery of dinosaurs in Morocco gives clues to why they became extinct

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Chenanisaurus barbaricus. Credit: Paleocolor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Chenanisaurus barbaricus. Credit: Paleocolor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

66 million years ago, the last dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. We are still trying to understand why. New fossils of abelisaurs (distant relatives of tyrannosaurs) from North Africa suggest that African dinosaurs remained diverse until the end. And that suggests that his disappearance came suddenly, with the impact of a giant asteroid.

The causes of the mass extinction have been debated for two centuries. Georges Cuvierthe father of paleontology, thought that extinction was driven by catastrophes. Charles Darwin Gradual changes in the environment and competition between species were thought to slowly extinguish lineages.

As our understanding of the fossil record improved, it became clear that the Cretaceous The period (145 million years ago to 66 million years ago) ended with an extraordinary wave of extinction. A large number of species disappeared around the world in a short period. The discovery of the 180 kilometers wide. Chixculub asteroid impact crater in Mexico suggested a sudden extinction of dinosaurs and other species, driven by the impact. But others have argued that much, Slow decline in dinosaur diversity. contributed to its extinction.

Reconstructing history is difficult. It’s not just that dinosaur fossils are so rare; The fossil record is also spotty.

Most of what we know about the last days of the dinosaurs is the result of intensive study of a few places in the United States. Canada and Mongolia. Much less is known about dinosaurs from the southern landmasses: South America, India, Madagascar, Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand.

Partly that is due to geography; It is difficult to find dinosaurs in rainforests. In part, historically there have been more paleontologists and museums in the northern hemisphere. The question is whether the image is biased.

Because it is such a large land mass, Africa probably had many more dinosaur species than North America. However, until recently we barely knew anything about the dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous in Africa. Africa has few terrestrial rocks from this period. This is because the high levels of volcanic activity made the sea level rise, submerging much of Africa under shallow seas. Dinosaurs, being terrestrial, are rarely found in marine rocks. But rarely means never. Study enough marine fossils and you will eventually find a dinosaur.

And in Morocco, we have study many marine fossils.

what we have found

Morocco’s phosphate deposits are remains of an ancient seabed dating back to the last million years of the era of the dinosaurs. They are full of fish bones and scales, shark teeth and marine reptiles. Large number of marine reptiles: mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, sea turtles.

But from time to time dinosaurs appear.

It’s unclear how the dinosaur bones ended up in marine sediments. Dinosaurs may have swam to the islands in search of food, as deer and elephants do today, and some may have drowned. Other dinosaurs might have been swept out to sea by floods or storms, or drowned in rivers that carried them downstream to the ocean. Others may have died on shore before being pulled out at high tide. But an unlikely series of events transported the dinosaurs to the ocean.

And so, studying the seabeds and working for many years, we have gradually formed a picture of the last dinosaurs of Africa, bone by bone.

The last dinosaurs of Africa included titanosaur sauropods, long-necked, elephant-sized herbivores. Horse-sized duck-billed dinosaurs filled the herbivore niche. But carnivores are particularly interesting. Located at the top of the food chain, they tell us a lot about the ecosystem. And African predatory dinosaurs were diverse, which meant diverse herbivores, and many of them.

The top predator was a ten meter long animal called Chenanisaur barbaricus. Chenanisaurus is so far known only from a jaw, but this tells us that it was part of Abelisauridae, a strange family of carnivores found in South America, India, Madagascar and Europe, while Tyrannosaurs dominated in the north.. Abelisaurs had short bulldog snouts and sometimes horns, and they had strange, stubby little arms that make T. rex’s arms look enormous by comparison.

Now, fossils of two new abelisaurs have appeared in Morocco.

One knows oneself by a tibia, a shin. It was smaller than Chenanisaurus, about five meters long: small by dinosaur standards, but large compared to modern predators. Interestingly, it resembles abelisaurs found in South America. It is possible that this marks an ancient land connection that existed between the continents 100 million years ago. Or, abelisaurs may have swam the narrow sea lane that separates the continents.

Another bone is from the foot of an even smaller abelisaurid, only three meters long. Similar small abelisaurids are found in Europe; may be related to them.

In recent months, more dinosaur fossils and more species have appeared. We’re still writing these fossils, so we can’t say much right now, but finding so many species in a handful of fossils tells us we’re sampling a very diverse fauna.

While Fossils from the Great Plains of North America may record a decline in dinosaur diversity, this may be a local phenomenon, not a global one. It is possible that global cooling in the late Cretaceous strongly affected higher latitude environments, reducing diversity. But the African dinosaur fauna hints that at low latitudes, dinosaurs were thriving, even diversifying. If so, that means the dinosaurs were exterminated in their prime; burning instead of fading.

What our findings show

The last dinosaurs of Africa, especially its various predatory dinosaurs, suggest that immediately before its extinction, dinosaurs prospered.

For more than 100 million years, they evolved and diversified, producing a remarkable variety of species: predators, herbivores, aquatic species and even flying forms, birds. Then, in a single catastrophic moment, everything was annihilated in the months of darkness caused by the dust and soot of the impact. Everything except half a dozen species of birds.

Evolution is driven by rare and improbable events, such as asteroid impacts. Interestingly, science is also often driven by improbable events, such as the improbable discovery of dinosaurs buried millions of years ago, at the bottom of the sea.

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