A 66 million-year-old duckbilled dinosaur unearthed in Morocco crossed oceans to get there

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The remains of a duckbilled dinosaur that lived 66 million years ago has been found in Morocco and it must have crossed miles of ocean to get there, scientists claim.

Paleontologists from the University of Bath and others found the fossilised remains of the unusual dinosaur, dubbed Ajnabia odysseus, in rocks in Morocco.

This is the first time a member of the duckbilled dinosaur family has been found in Africa, suggesting Anjabia had to cross oceans to get to its destination - researchers couldn't say exactly where it came from or the actual distance it travelled.

Ajnabia was about 10ft long, about the size of a pony, and was a member of the diverse plant-eating duckbill dinosaur reptile group that evolved in North America.  

At the time this dinosaur lived, Africa was an island continent, surrounded by water and until now this species had only been found in North America, Europe and Asia.

Paleontologists from the University of Bath and others found the fossilised remains of the unusual dinosaur, dubbed Ajnabia odysseus, in rocks in Morocco

Researchers believe this is the first example of a duckbill dinosaur in Africa - they evolved in North America before spreading into Europe and Asia. This image shows Europe and Africa as it was in the Late Cretaceous with locations highlighted where duckbills have been found

Dr Nicholas Longrich, of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, said they discovered the fossil in a mine a few hours from Casablanca.

He said it was 'about the last thing in the world you would expect' and was 'completely out of place, like finding a kangaroo in Scotland'.

'Sherlock Holmes said, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth,' added Longrich.

'It was impossible to walk to Africa. These dinosaurs evolved long after continental drift split the continents, and we have no evidence of land bridges,'

'The geology tells us Africa was isolated by oceans. If so, the only way to get there is by water,' Longrich said, suggesting the dinosaur had to swim to its destination.

While the team couldn't say just how long the swim would have been or exactly where the dinosaur came from, they predict it was likely from Europe. 

Scientists examined Ajnabia's distinctive teeth and jawbones and found it belonged to Lambeosaurinae, a subfamily of duckbills with elaborate bony head crests.

Lambeosaurs evolved in North America before spreading to Asia and Europe but until now have never been discovered in Africa before.

The duckbills must have crossed hundreds of miles of open water, either rafting on debris, floating or swimming, to reach Africa.

They were probably powerful swimmers, as they had large tails and powerful legs, and are often discovered in river deposits and marine rocks.

This suggests that the persistent reptiles may have swum the distance.

Dr Nicholas Longrich, of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, said they discovered the fossil in a mine a few hours from Casablanca

Fossil remains of Ajnabia odysseus were found near Casablanca in Morroco, the first to be uncovered in Africa

In reference to this, the dinosaur is named Ajnabia odysseus – Ajnabi is Arabic for 'foreigner' and Odysseus comes from the Greek seafarer.

Ocean crossings are rare events but have been previously observed in other ancient lizard species - including green iguanas that used debris to travel between Caribbean islands during a hurricane.

A tortoise from the Seychelles also floated hundreds of miles across the Indian Ocean to wash up in Africa.

Dr Longrich said: 'Over millions of years, once-in-a-century events are likely to happen many times.

Earth looked different 66 million years ago, with higher sea levels cutting Africa off from Europe by an ocean and parts of Europe further broken up by the water

Ajnabia grew to about 10ft long, significantly smaller than other members of the duckbill family which could reach a massive 49ft

'Ocean crossings are needed to explain how lemurs and hippos got to Madagascar, or how monkeys and rodents crossed from Africa to South America.

'As far as I know, we're the first to suggest ocean crossings for dinosaurs.' 

Dr Nour-Eddine Jalil, from the Natural History Museum of Sorbonne University, described how the dinosaurs reached Africa, and finding the fossil of a terrestrial animal in a marine environment as a 'succession of improbable events'.

This 'highlights the rarity of our find and therefore its importance', Dr Jalil said.

'Ajnabia shows us that hadrosaurs have set foot on African land, telling us that ocean barriers are not always an insurmountable obstacle.'

The study is published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

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