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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 21:21 EDT

Fossil Hunters Flock To Angola For Important Finds

August 21, 2009

Paleontologists say Angola is fast becoming a “museum in the ground” for rare dinosaur fossils, where some are actually sticking out of the ground, AFP reported.

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

“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,” he explained.

A bloody liberation struggle against the Portuguese that began in the 1960s led to three decades of civil war that covered the country in landmines and made it a no-go zone for researchers.

But after a peace deal was drawn up in 2002, the land was open to fossil hunters who are now piecing together the country’s Jurassic past.

Fossil hunter 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 in 2005.

The majority of 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.

Most of the digs have taken place along the coast north of Luanda, and in the desert province of Namibe, where sand cliffs steeply drop to the ocean below, causing fossils to actually sticking out of the embankments.

Mateus 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.

Mateus said some of the places in Angola 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.

Angola’s dramatic continental shifts tens of millions of years ago saw the land transform from desert to tropics, making it a prime area for well-preserved fossils.

Many of these fossil finds could 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.

Mateus explained that fossils could date how animals migrated from one place to another and how continents moved through time.

“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.

Experts also suggest the rocks may be 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 68 million years ago that slammed into the sea near Mexico.

Mateus said you could see where lava has flown into wet sand and where it’s flown over dry land, giving an indication of when different things were happening millions of years ago.

“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,” Jacobs said.

Both the National Geographical Society and the Petroleum Research Foundation of America helped fund the PaleoAngola project.