Fossil hunters have unearthed the remains of the oldest – and possibly the strangest – ankylosaurus known to date at a site in the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
The remains of the heavily armored animal are extraordinary as they are the first to have defensive spikes fused to the skeleton, a feature unprecedented in the animal kingdom.
“It’s totally, totally weird,” said Dr Susannah Maidment, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “Normally when we see armor in Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurs, the dermal armor is embedded in the skin, not attached to the skeleton. In this case, it is not only in contact with the skeleton, it is welded to the skeleton. ribs.
Museum researchers obtained the fossil from a private collector for an undisclosed sum. They originally suspected the bones might belong to a new species of Stegosaurus they identified in the same region in 2019, but microscopic analysis of thin sections of the fossil revealed distinctive fiber patterns unique to ankylosaurs.
The find was so unusual that scientists wondered if the fossil could be a fake, but further inspection with a CT scanner revealed no signs that it had been constructed or tampered with.
The fossil dates from the Middle Jurassic, around 168 million years ago, suggesting that the animal was one of the first ankylosaurs to roam the Earth. Beyond being classified as the oldest ankylosaur fossil known to date, it is also the first to be found in Africa.
Maidment said the animal could be an early ankylosaur that others evolved from, or an entirely new lineage. Details are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Ankylosaurs – the name means “stiff lizard” – were large herbivorous parents of Stegosaurs. They sported heavily armored skulls, spiked bodies and clubbed tails. The animals, which could grow to seven meters in length and weigh four tons, are mainly known from American and Canadian fossils dating from 74 to 67 million years ago. The new fossil suggests that long before that, creatures could have lived all over the world.
The fossil is now part of the collection of the Natural History Museum where researchers will continue to study the remains. Maidment said the hope was to work more closely with collectors in Morocco and his colleagues at the University of Fez, so that more detailed information can be gathered on fossils from the Middle Atlas Mountains, and to establish a specialized laboratory so that future discoveries can be studied. in Morocco.