for National Geographic News
The fossil skull of a new species of dinosaura wrinkle-faced carnivore called Rugops primus that lived 95 million years agohas been found in a remote part of the Sahara in Africa.
The discovery of the 30-foot-long (9-meter-long) dinosaurwhose cousins lived as far away as South America and Indiasheds new light on how and when the ancient southern continent that included Africa, South America, and India separated.
Because abelisauridsthe family of dinosaurs to which Rugops belongswere virtually unknown in Africa, some scientists had suggested that Africa split off first from the southern continent Gondwana as early as 120 million years ago.
The new fossils, however, suggest that Africa and other modern-day continents that formed Gondwana may have separated and drifted apart over a narrow interval of time much later, 95 to 100 million years ago.
"This was a stubborn, missing piece," said Paul Sereno, a paleontology professor at the University of Chicago and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, who led the research team. "It's the crown in this lineage of dinosaurs and the missing link at the 95-million-year-old level."
Sereno also announced the discovery of another carnivorous species, named Spinostropheus gautieri, which his team found on a separate expedition to Niger. Together, the two new species fill in gaps in the evolution of carnivorous dinosaurs in Africa.
The research was partly funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration and was published online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. The July issue of National Geographic magazine will also feature an article on one of the dinosaurs.
Hitting Pay Dirt
In 2000 Sereno's expedition in Gadoufaoua, Nigera remote site in the Sahara where Tuareg nomads roamwas nearing its end. The team decided to visit a new area to prepare the grounds for its next expedition.
The scientists had already collected 20 tons of material. But soon the team discovered much more.
In an area about the size of a football field, the scientists found more life from the early Late Cretaceous a period 95 million years agothan has been found in Africa in all the years previously.
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