The relatively small fossil site in Niger, no bigger than a football field, was in operation for only two months. But University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno is ecstatic about what he is finding as he sifts through the 20 tons of fossils recovered there. “This was probably the most successful expedition I will ever lead,” Sereno says, “and I’ve led a lot of expeditions.”
Among the fossils excavated by Sereno and his team was the skull of an unknown 95-million-year-old carnivore from the abelisaurid (“wrinkle faced”) family, which he named Rugops primus. This 30-foot animal may have scavenged carcasses; markings on the bone imply its head was covered with keratin, the material in our fingernails, which might have protected its face while it tore into its food. The most intriguing aspect of Rugops, however, is where it lived. Until now, the fossil record implied that abelisaurids lived only on what remained of Gondwanaland, the early landmass that included modern India and South America. Africa supposedly separated from this massive continent 120 million years ago, long before the rise of the wrinkle-faced dinos. Finding Rugops in Africa therefore came as a shock. Sereno regards the discovery as evidence that land bridges connected Africa to Gondwanaland much later than previously believed.
Further study of the Niger fossils may expose additional unexpected family connections. Sereno believes he has found the bones of a variety of other dinosaurs and other animals never before found in Africa. “There is a coming together of evidence that is hard to deny,” he says. “We have unearthed a new chapter with lots of new players.”