“Consider a coffee table. Short, wide, spiked, and approaching you. That is indeed an ankylosaur!”
Dr Susie Effect of maternal is describing a magnificent new fossil that she has acquired.
She possesses little more than a piece of rib with prongs attached. However, even from this, the palaeontologist may deduce that it is a novel type of armoured dinosaur and the world’s oldest ankylosaur.
Additionally, it comes from Africa, namely Morocco, where these animals have never been discovered previously.
Normally, rib bones would be covered by muscle, then by skin, with the armour – composed of a protein called keratin, similar to your fingernails – lying on top.
However, the spikes being linked directly to the bone seems strange. For one thing, you’d assume this would limit muscular extension and make movement difficult for the animal.
“It’s strange, to be honest,” Dr Maidment reported to news agency
“This is not observed in any other current (alive) or extinct vertebrate. It is a morphology that has never been seen before in the history of life on Earth.”
Dr Maidment’s team was so caught aback by the fossil that they pondered for a time whether it was a forgery or even an ankylosaur at all; perhaps it was some hitherto unidentified giant fish. However, with comprehensive scanning and more research, it was feasible to rule out both possibilities.
That is interesting in and of itself, but there is also something odd about this old specimen.
The spikes are bonded directly to the bone, which is a significant conundrum, according to Dr Maidment, who is connected with the Natural History Museum in London (NHM).
The majority of us are more familiar with stegosaurs. They were armoured dinosaurs with a row of formidable plates down the length of their spine. If you visit the NHM, you’ll witness a beautiful specimen dubbed Sophie.
Their evolutionary cousins were the ankylosaurs. And they were also quite successful.
They survived the Cretaceous period, right up until an asteroid crashed 66 million years ago, wiping out 75% of all plant and animal species on the globe.
However, the actual date of the ankylosaurs’ emergence is unknown, which makes this newly discovered specimen all the more remarkable.
It is believed to date from the Middle Jurassic Period, around 168 million years ago.
This fills in significant gaps in our understanding of dinosaur evolution and strongly implies that ankylosaurs had a worldwide range.
“Ankylosaurs are highly well-known in the northern hemisphere’s northern continents, notably in North America and Asia. However, they are rather unknown in the southern continents “Dr Maidment elaborated.
“There have been tantalizing remnants that imply they were present, but except from one excellent example from Australia, there has been little definitive proof.
“This is Africa’s first ankylosaur, and it also dates from a very, very early time period. We have long assumed that ankylosaurs existed throughout the Middle Jurassic based on the presence of stegosaurs.
“Because stegosaurs and ankylosaurs are closely linked, it makes logical that if stegosaurs developed at that time, ankylosaurs must have followed suit.” Spicomellus means “spike collar” and afer meaning “of Africa.”
A farmer unearthed the specimen in Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains, the same region where NHM researchers earlier uncovered the world’s oldest stegosaur.
Dr Maidment paid a quick visit to the site before Covid limitations precluded further digging.
When things return to normal, she’ll return to Morocco to check if there are any other ankylosaur parts that might offer insight on the creature’s unique physiology.