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King of Dinosaur Skulls

13 December 1996 8:00 pm
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Paleontologists have unearthed in Madagascar one of the most complete dinosaur skulls ever found. The discovery sheds new light on a little-known dinosaur called Majungasaurus, which lived on the island off Africa's southeast coast about 75 million years ago. It may also help scientists understand more about how animals in the ancient Southern Hemisphere evolved.

Cathy Forster, a paleontologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, helped lead the team that found the well-preserved specimen this summer in the Mahajanga Basin of northwestern Madagascar. Although the teeth of the large, meat-eating Majungasaurus are "everywhere on the site," she says, the only bones previously found had been a jaw fragment, some toe bones, and a part of a tail. This summer, a researcher spotted a few vertebrae sticking out of a hill, and a meter or so underground the team uncovered the unusually complete skull. "It looks like we got everything," Forster says, "even the delicate bones from the roof of the mouth."

Forster says the find will allow scientists to compare Majungasaurus with other related dinosaurs found in India and South America--land masses that, along with Africa and Antarctica, were once connected with Madagascar. Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, says the "beautiful" find helps to fill in a large gap. "We know an awful lot about the dinosaurs in the Northern Hemisphere," he says, "but very little is known about the southern [ones]."

Scientists want to know how animals on the southern continents relate to one another so they can piece together how they evolved as the continents moved apart. Forster says the Majungasaurus skull is very similar to that of Indosuchus, a dinosaur found in India, and may be more distantly related to a dinosaur from Argentina. "Now that we have a good skull," she says, "we can start to unravel how the animals moved around."

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