End of civil war opens up Angolan 'Jurassic Park'


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 21, 2009 at 7:32 PM EDT

Angola is best known for oil and diamonds, but dinosaur hunters say the country holds a "museum in the ground" of rare fossils -- some actually jutting from the earth -- waiting to be discovered.

"Angola is the final frontier for palaeontology," explained Louis Jacobs, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, part of the PaleoAngola project which is hunting for dinosaur fossils.

"Due to the war, there's been little research carried out so far, but now we're getting in finally and there's so much to find.

"In some areas there are literally fossils sticking out of the rocks. It's like a museum in the ground."

The first reports of dinosaur remains in Angola were made in the 1960s, but a bloody liberation struggle against the Portuguese followed by three decades of civil war covered the country in landmines and made it a no-go zone for researchers.

Following the 2002 peace deal, however, the land is quite literally opening up to fossil hunters who are piecing together the country's Jurassic past.

The biggest find to date was made in 2005 when Octavio Mateus from the New Lisbon University, also part of the PaleoAngola project, retrieved five bones from the front left leg of a sauropod dinosaur on the coast at Iembe.

Since then, most skulls and skeletons uncovered by the PaleoAngola team have been from turtles, sharks, and aquatic plesiosaurs and mosasaurs -- which are more closely related to snakes than to dinosaurs.

One of the mosasaur species has even been dubbed Angolasaurus.

The focus of the digs so far have been along the coast north of Luanda, and in the desert province of Namibe where sand cliffs drop dramatically to the ocean below, with fossils poking out of the embankments.

However, Mateus, who is also working with researchers from Maastricht's Natural History Museum, believes the sauropod bones are just a beginning.

"We believe there are more dinosaurs to be found, we just need the facilities and means to dig for them," he said.

"Angola is amazing for fossils. Some places here are the best in the world in terms of the fossils. We keep finding new animals, so it's always exciting to be here," he added.

Much of Angola's fossil richness results from dramatic continental shifts tens of millions of years ago, which saw the land transform from desert to tropics.

Today the country remains tropical in the north at its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and arid desert in the south where it meets Namibia.

Researchers hope that fossils will help uncover more about continental shifts and establish a more exact date for when what is now South America split from Africa and the southern Atlantic was formed.

"Fossils can date how animals migrated from one place to another and how continents moved through time," Mateus explained.

"From fossils we can work out when terrestrial animals were no longer able to cross from Africa to South America and when marine animals were," he said.

The rocks are also a reference to the point in time when creatures like mosasaurs and dinosaurs were likely driven to extinction by the impact of a large asteroid which slammed into the sea near Mexico 68 million years ago.

"You can see where lava has flown into wet sand and then next to it where it's flown over dry land, and that gives us an indication of when different things were happening millions of years ago," Mateus explained.

The PaleoAngola project has funding from the National Geographical Society and the Petroleum Research Foundation of America, and works with Agostinho Neto University in Luanda and the Private University of Angola in Lubango.

Jacobs, who once headed Kenya's National Paleontology Museum, said the project also aims to train Angolan scientists "so in the long-term they can run their show."

"Angola should be able to use its own unique resources in museums to teach future generations about their country and the world.

"And who knows, in the much longer term, it could prove to be a tourist attraction."

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