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Swiss make dinosaur discovery

The foot of an Atlasaurus imelakei discovered by Monbaron swissinfo.ch

Swiss scientists working as part of an international team believe they have discovered a previously unknown species of dinosaur in Morocco.

This content was published on July 27, 2002 - 11:09

Part of the dinosaur find has been excavated and brought to safety. But the scientists - among them Swiss geologist Michel Monbaron - say more time and intensive research are needed before they can announce such a result with certainty.
They say they will present their findings in Paris in the autumn.

The team has been excavating and searching for dinosaur remains at the foot of the High Atlas mountains for around a year. Although the region has a history of spectacular finds, it is largely uncharted.

Spectacular finds

swissinfo visited the site and observed the scientists absorbed in their painstaking work. The site where the remains were found is in the centre of Toundout, a town of 40,000 inhabitants.

Today, the region is dry and has a hot desert climate. But, according to Monbaron, this has not always been the case. Around 170 million years ago the area had a humid, tropical climate.

The soil was fertile, vegetation varied and the landscape green: ideal living conditions for herbivorous dinosaurs.

So it is not surprising that the area is rich in sites containing dinosaur remains, especially from the Lower Jurassic period. There are very few land deposits from this time anywhere in the world.

First excavations

It was known that this type of site existed in the High Atlas, but no modern day excavations had been undertaken until now.

With Swiss support and active participation - especially that of Monbaron, a professor at the University of Fribourg, and Christian Meyer from Basel's Natural History Museum - researchers are digging, analysing and documenting their finds.

There is a long tradition of collaboration between Switzerland and Morocco in this field. Since the mid-20th century, Swiss geologists have been travelling to Rabat to work in the North African kingdom.

The project is the consequence of a research convention between Morocco and various scientific institutions from around the world. The expedition is being led by Philippe Taquet of the French National History Museum in Paris.

"One never knows quite how unique a find may be," Taquet told swissinfo. "What I do know, however, is that this place is teeming with dinosaur bones."

The foreign scientists also have the support of the local experts of the Rabat Natural History Museum and the Moroccan Ministry of Energy and Mining.

Atlasaurus imelakei

Morocco became aware of its palaeontological treasures only a few years ago, thanks to Monbaron's discovery of one of the world's largest and most complete sauropods - the Atlasaurus imelakei.

Atlasaurus imelakei was a lizard just under 18 metres long and almost 5 metres tall with an estimated weight of 22.5 tons. The skeleton is about 165 million years old.

At the time of Monbaron's find, the species was totally unknown. The skeleton is now in the Natural History Museum in Rabat.

The find was only the beginning for the "sons of the dinosaur", as the local inhabitants call the scientists. Encouraged by this unique discovery, the Moroccan authorities have stepped up their efforts to unearth the country's palaeontological treasures.

Since then, research into dinosaurs has been accelerating, with the goal of creating a "geopark" in the region to attract tourists. The intention is to establish the park directly at the sites of dinosaur finds in collaboration with Unesco.

by Carole Gürtler, Toundout

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