Unearthing Dinosaurs in the Atlas Mountains

A special field report from Dr. Cary Woodruff, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Frost Science.

Did you know that dinosaurs lived in Morocco? In fact, dinosaurs lived on every continent—even Antarctica. I just spent a week digging up dinosaurs in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains as part of a multi-institutional collaboration led by Dr. Susannah Maidment of the Natural History Museum (London), where we discovered some amazing fossils.

In 2020 and 2021, Dr. Maidment led a research team that named a brand-new stegosaur (the plated and spike-tailed dinosaurs) and a brand-new ankylosaur (the armored and club-tailed dinosaurs) from Morocco. Among the interesting things about these discoveries is that the ankylosaur, called Spicomellus (pronounced spy-ko-mel-us), is the first known ankylosaur from Africa.

Both Spicomellus and the stegosaur, called Adratiklit (pronounced ah-dra-tick-lit), lived approximately 164-168 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period. Many famous Jurassic fossils have been discovered here in the United States. However, they are from the Late Jurassic, which was about 150 million years ago. While there are many marine fossils from the Middle Jurassic known globally, there are still very few land fossils from this time. This means the evolutionary history of life on land from this era, particularly the dinosaur record, remains murky. Spicomellus, Adratiklit and other new Moroccan Middle Jurassic dinosaurs help clarify it.

During our recent expedition, we returned to the sites where Spicomellus and Adratiklit were originally found to see if we could uncover any more fossils from these dinosaurs. Not only did we find additional fossil material of Spicomellus, but we also found fossils from other dinosaurs including limbs and tracks from large sauropods (the long-necked plant eaters like “Brontosaurus”). Once back at the Natural History Museum in London, the fossils will be cleaned, repaired and studied by Dr. Maidment and other paleontologists and geologists. You’ll certainly be learning about these amazing dinosaur discoveries in the future!

An equally important story about this expedition is the huge collaborative effort that made it happen. Researchers on the dig came from not only the Natural History Museum and Frost Science, but also Morocco’s Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University and the University of Birmingham in the UK. Morocco has an amazing record of the evolution of life on Earth, but unfortunately, there are very few scientists from Morocco studying their incredible fossil heritage. Geoscientists Dr. Driss Ouarhache, Dr. Khadija Boumir, Dr. Katwar Ech and current Ph.D. student Ahmed Oussou joined us on the expedition to learn fossil excavation techniques and other field research methods. We are excited to collaborate with them and looking forward to sharing our findings with Morocco and the world!