Bizarre armoured spike fossil belongs to a new species of dinosaur that lived in Africa 168 million years ago and was 'unlike anything else in the animal kingdom'
- Researchers from the Natural History Museum found the strange fossil in Morocco's Middle Atlas Mountains
- It dates back 168 million years and is an unusual, ancient ankylosaur specimen, the oldest ever discovered
- What made it unique was evidence of spikes fused to the rib bones not the skin as is normal in an ankylosaur
- The dinosaur has been given the name 'Spicomellus afer' which stands for collar of spikes and Africa
A bizarre armoured spike fossil, found in Morocco, belonged to a new species of dinosaur that was 'unlike anything else in the animal kingdom,' research has found.
The fossil shows a series of spikes that were fused to the rib of the beast, which is unusual for an ankylosaur, as it would usually be connected to the skin tissue.
Ankylosaurs were a diverse group of armoured dinosaurs related to the stegosaurs, which were present throughout the Cretaceous period from 145 to 66 million years ago.
However, there is little evidence of them before then, making this new fossil, dating back 168 million years, the earliest example of the group ever discovered.
The exciting discovery was made in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco at the same site where researchers from the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London previously discovered the oldest stegosaur ever found.
Dr Susannah Maidment, a researcher at the NHM, described the new species and named it 'Spicomellus afer', meaning collar of spikes and Africa.
'At first we thought the specimen could be part of a stegosaur, having previously found them at the same location. But on closer inspection, we realised the fossil was unlike anything we had ever seen,' the researcher explained.
The specimen was so unusual that at first the researchers wondered if it could be a fake, but a series of CT scans confirmed it was 'the real deal'.
A cross section from the base of the fossil showed a cross hatch pattern in the bone that is unique to ankylosaurs, revealing its identity.
'Ankylosaurs had armoured spikes that are usually embedded in their skin and not fused to bone,' said Dr Maidment, pointing out what made it so unusual.
'In this specimen we see a series of spikes attached to the rib, which must have protruded above the skin covered by a layer of something like keratin.
'It is completely unprecedented and unlike anything else in the animal kingdom.'
The new discovery dates from the Middle Jurassic period around 168 million years ago and helps fill an important gap in our knowledge of dinosaur evolution.
It suggests that ankylosaurs may have had a global distribution, found across the planet and not in confined areas, the team revealed.
The discovery also calls into question a previous theory that ankylosaurs outcompeted stegosaurs and led to their extinction.
This new find, however, means the two groups co-existed for over 20 million years, and implies the extinction of the stegosaurs may have happened for other reasons.
The fossil that led to the description of this new species is now part of the Natural History Museum's collections and will be the subject of ongoing study.
Dr Maidment said: 'Morocco seems to hold some real gems in terms of dinosaur discoveries. In just this one site we have described both the oldest stegosaur and the oldest ankylosaur ever found.
'When circumstances allow, we hope to return and work with our colleagues at the University of Fez to help them to establish a vertebrate paleontology lab so that further finds can be studied in Morocco.'
The study Bizarre dermal armour suggests the first African ankylosaur is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
WHAT WERE THE ANKYLOSAURID DINOSAURS AND WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THEM?
One of the most impressive weapons to appear during the dinosaur arms race in the Cretaceous Period was the bony tail club wielded by some members of a group of tank-like plant-eaters.
The distinctive feature – a bludgeon used in combat that may have given even the ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex reason to worry – was possessed by the heavily armoured dinosaur ankylosaurus and its cousins.
Researchers have studied fossils of a group known as ankylosaurs, including primitive species with no tail club, and those with a fully developed defensive bone on the tail, which appeared later.
Ankylosaurs began to evolve tail clubs much earlier than previously thought, a 2015 study found, and the clubs evolved in two steps over the course of tens of millions of years.
First, vertebrae in the back part of the tail changed sothat the tail became stiff.
Next, bones that form in the skin toprovide body armour, known as osteoderms, became very large at thetip of the tail and completely enveloped the tail's end to forma club which could be swung at an enemy.
Ankylosaurs were wide-bodied, four-legged dinosaurs coveredin bony plates and spikes.
The oldest known ankylosaur datedfrom around 160 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period.
Ankylosaurs from China were crucial for understanding the tail club's origins, including Gobisaurus, from about 92 million years ago, and Liaoningosaurus, from about 122 million years ago.
Asian ankylosaurids had more pronounced spikes covering their skulls, compared with the smooth-boned armour of their North American counterparts.
The first fully-formed ankylosaur tail clubappeared around 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous.
Ankylosaurus, measuring around 20 feet (six metre), was thelargest and last of the ankylosaurs, living at the end of theage of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.