From The Land Before Time to Jurassic Park, dinosaur representation in pop culture has frankly lacked in diversity — on perhaps, more accurately, our imagined ancient landscapes always neglect to include this punk: the spike-studded, thick-skinned ankylosaurus. Aside from its unique physique (more on that later), the dinosaur could shed light on a part of the world paleontologists have just begun digging into: Africa.
The discovery — Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution revealed scientists had discovered the oldest known ankylosaur fossil in the world. It also marks the first fossil of its kind to be found in Africa, which means there could be even more waiting to be discovered — if only paleontologists can find them.
INVERSE is counting down the 20 science discoveries that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #14. See the full list here.
“We’ve been looking for dinosaurs for a long time in Europe, Asia, and North America, but the southern continents, and particularly parts of Africa, are much less well-explored,” lead author Susannah Maidment, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, told Inverse in an interview at the time.
What they found — If you have never heard of an ankylosaurus, you are not alone. But in truth, the dinosaur is a cousin of a more infamous species, the stegosaurus. Ankylosaurs stomped around between the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods, more than 150 million years ago.
The ankylosaurus specimen, labeled NHMUK PV R37412, dates back to the Middle Jurassic period 163.5 to 168.3 million years ago. The researchers named this dino Spicomellus afer. While that name might not mean much to the layperson, it’s an inside joke that references the giant reptile’s bizarre spike armor and place of origin; “spicus” is latin for “spikes,” while “afer” refers to a resident of Africa. Specifically, this Spicomellus specimen came from Morocco.
What makes ankylosaurs so bizarre is their armored hides. Armor plates, fused to its ribs, protruded from the surface of the anylosaur’s skin like so many spiked studs on a punk’s jean jacket. Scientists have never seen this physiology in any other vertebrate.
Why it matters — This finding challenges paleontologists’ understanding of how ankylosaurus came to be.
“We thought that ankylosaurs must have been around in Middle Jurassic ecosystems because their sister group, the stegosaurs, are known from this time period,” Maidment explained.
Older theories had posited that ankylosaurs may be a culprit in pushing stegosaurus to extinction — they were out-matched by their armored relatives. But this discovery suggests a more nuanced picture in which stegosaurus and ankylosaur co-existed.
(Remind any one of our own species and the disappearance of Neanderthals, any one?)
What’s next — Paleontology suffers from a location bias: Most of what we know about dinosaurs comes from discoveries made in Europe. That means there may be a trove of fossil discoveries out there that can shed light on the creatures that roamed Earth during eras like the little-understood middle Jurassic period. The 2020 lockdown has hindered the researchers behind this discovery’s plans for further on-site work in Morocco, but the future looks bright for understanding ankylosaurs, at least.
In a fresh finding detailed in Nature in early December, a separate team of paleontologists describe a new ankylosaurus, this time discovered in Chile. It lived some 73 million years ago, according to the paper, and it represents the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in this region of the world.
It also adds a fresh twist to the ankylosaurus tale: Along with the deadly protruding spikes along its back, this species of ankylosaur had developed an absolutely lethal, sword-like, armored tail seen on no other dinosaur yet found.
INVERSE is counting down the 20 science discoveries that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #14. Read the original story here.