Dinosaurs In Saudi Arabia: First Fossils Ever Found On Arabian Peninsula Are 72 Million-Year-Old Sauropod Bones

By Ben Wolford on January 7, 2014 3:48 PM EST

This isolated tooth evidences the first identifiable carnivorous theropod dinosaur from the Arabian Peninsula. Abelisaurids like this specimen have been found in the ancient Gondwanan landmasses of North Africa, Madagascar and South America. (Photo: Maxim Leonov/Palaeontological Institute, Moscow)

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This isolated tooth evidences the first identifiable carnivorous theropod dinosaur from the Arabian Peninsula. Abelisaurids like this specimen have been found in the ancient Gondwanan landmasses of North Africa, Madagascar and South America. (Photo: Maxim Leonov/Palaeontological Institute, Moscow)


The Arabian Peninsula is notoriously stingy when it comes to coughing up dinosaur fossils, and until recently the massive country of Saudi Arabia was utterly without evidence that its soil had ever hosted dinosaur life. Two rare pieces of proof — the tooth shown above and the tailbone below — changed that, the Saudi Geological Survey, Jeddah, announced Tuesday.

A team of archaeologists published details of their find in the journal PLOS ONE late last month under the celebratory headline, "First Dinosaurs from Saudi Arabia." Saudi Arabia's virgin dino dig also produced some of the best fossils yet found on the peninsula, where dinosaur leftovers that are picked up have been difficult to identify. The tooth and vertibrae, each about 72 million years old, are sufficient to name their owners as an abelisaurid and a titanosaurid, respectively. (Abelisaurids are carnivorous bipeds, kind of like a Tyranosaurus but smaller; and titanosaurids are long-necked herbivores.)

"Dinosaur fossils are exceptionally rare in the Arabian Peninsula, with only a handful of highly fragmented bones documented this far," lead author Benjamin Kear, of Uppsala University in Sweden, said in a statement. "This discovery is important not only because of where the remains were found, but also because of the fact that we can actually identify them. Indeed, these are the first taxonomically recognizable dinosaurs reported from the Arabian Peninsula."

One of the exceptionally rare tail vertebrae from Saudi Arabia's first described giant titanosaurid sauropod. This dinosaur was probably in excess of 20 m long when alive. (Photo: Tim Holland/Kronosaurus Korner, Richmond)
One of the exceptionally rare tail vertebrae from Saudi Arabia's first described giant titanosaurid sauropod. This dinosaur was probably in excess of 20 m long when alive. (Photo: Tim Holland/Kronosaurus Korner, Richmond)


One law of fossil hunting is this: You're more likely to find a fossil in the desert. That's because anywhere else, where there are plants and animals to create layers of topsoil, you have to cut through a whole lot of relatively new matter before you get to the ancient rocks. In the desert, it's just sand. This is part of the reason the western United States has beensuch a hit with paleontologists. Other barren places, like Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, and Liaoning Province in China, are world-renowned dig sites.

So why, in the dusty Arabian subcontinent, have more dinosaur fossils not been found? Often, scientists find the best dinosaur fossils where streams or rivers once stood. A typical example goes like this: A dinosaur dies in a river, and its body sinks to the bottom. The bones get washed into a shallow bend and gets stuck. Other bones gather there, too. Over millions of years, the bones decay, but minerals from the earth fill the space the bones once occupied. Suddenly you've got a trove of fossils all in the same spot.

The Arabian Peninsula didn't have a lot of rivers back then; it was mostly an ocean. "Dinosaur remains from the Arabian Peninsula and the area east of the Mediterranean Sea are exceedingly rare because sedimentary rocks deposited in streams and rivers during the Age of Dinosaurs are rare, particularly in Saudi Arabia itself," says Tom Rich, another author from Museum Victoria in Australia, in the news release. But Rich is optimistic now that they'll be able to find more than just a tooth and a tailbone. "The hardest fossil to find is the first one. Knowing that they occur in a particular area and the circumstances under which they do, makes finding more fossils significantly less difficult."

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