Being a paleontologist is like being a detective; you have to search for all the puzzle pieces in order to solve the mystery. You also have to take chances, and sometimes you will discover something new and surprising. It can also be painstaking and difficult. However, one man, Nizar Ibrahim, did not give up until his paleontological mystery was solved.
The date is March 3, 2013. The place: Erfoud, Morocco. Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, along with Samir Zouhri from the Université Hassan II in Casablanca and David Martill from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, are on a manhunt. They are looking for a fouiller, a local fossil hunter who makes money by selling his finds. Fouillers usually get their dinosaur bones from the Kem Kem beds, 150-mile long slopes that shelter fossils dating from the middle of the Cretaceous Period, which occurred 100 to 94 million years ago.
The reasons behind their search for this fouiller date back to Ernst Stromer, a German aristocrat who lived in the early 1900s. Stromer discovered an unusual skeleton in the Sahara that he named Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, or Spinosaurus for short. The Spinosaurus was a huge predator with three-foot jaws, a six-foot long sail-like structure on its back, long spines, and a spiny tail. The skeleton initially displayed in Munich, was ultimately destroyed in an Allied air raid in 1944. All that remained of Stromer’s amazing discovery were his notes, drawings, and photographs.
Many years later, Ibrahim encountered Stromer’s work. “The breadth and depth of his work was incredible and inspired me to be ambitious in my own research,” Ibrahim said. Eventually, Ibrahim's research brought him to Erfoud Morollo, where in 2008, he was sold a box containing four purple stone blocks streaked with yellow sediment. Ibrahim found a dinosaur hand bone and an unrecognizable flat bone embedded in the stones, both of which had strange white cross sections.
Ibrahim did not understand the importance of the bones until nearly a year later when visiting the Natural History Museum in Milan, Italy. There, researchers Cristiano Dal Sasso and Simone Maganuco showed him a large fossil brought in by a dealer. It was obviously a partial Spinosaurus skeleton, much more intact than Stromer’s was. What surprised Ibrahim was the familiar purple sandstone and yellow streaks. The bones even had the same unique white cross section on the spine as Ibrahim’s fossils did. Ibrahim realized all of the fossils might belong to the same creature. If he were able to find the exact burial site for the fossils, he and other scientists could uncover the mysteries of the Spinosaurus.
Unfortunately, Ibrahim would first have to find the man who had sold the bones to him. “I didn’t know his name, and all I could remember was that he had a moustache and was wearing white,” Ibrahim said of this challenge. “Which in Morocco didn’t narrow things down much,” he added. Despite the overwhelming odds, Ibrahim and his two companions traveled to Erfoud in 2013, where they searched for days in the Kem Kem beds for the man, with no luck. As they rested at a street-side café, someone walked by perfectly fitting Ibrahim’s description. It was their man! After some convincing, he decided to show them the spot where he found the fossils. It was north of Erfoud, in a large hole in the side of a hill. The walls of the cave-like area had the same purplish sandstone with yellow streaks, which was the final confirmation for Ibrahim.
The search may have been over, but the mystery was far from solved. Ibrahim still needed to put the Spinosaurus together, but the beast’s strange characteristics made it difficult. According to one paleontologist, the creature is "like a cross between an alligator and a sloth.” Like Stromer, Ibrahim struggled to imagine what the full, enormous body could have looked like. With Simone Maganuca and Tyler Keillor, a fossil paleoartist at the University of Chicago, Ibrahim set about digitally reconstructing the dinosaur. The reconstruction required C-T scans, review of photos from museums in Milan and Paris, and digital images of Stromer’s photos and sketches. They also sculpted missing bones using a digital modeling program. Finally, the Spinosaurus model was complete.
Ibrahim’s team’s work led to many discoveries. For one, the Spinosaurus, measured 50 feet from nose to tail, was the largest carnivore that ever lived. In comparison, the largest T. Rex measured 40.5 feet from head to tail. Scientists also determined that the Spinosaurus was mainly an aquatic creature, as they were quadrupeds and walked on four legs, while all other predatory dinosaurs walked only on two legs.
The Spinosaurus also showed similarities to many present-day aquatic creatures. Its barrel shaped torso is similar to that of dolphins and whales. Additionally, it has the same dense bones and long limbs as a sea cow, and pits in its snout, which likely housed pressure sensors used to detect prey and are similar to those of crocodiles and alligators.
The final phase of the digital dino project took form as a life-size Spinosaurus skeleton formed with high-density polystyrene foam. It is mounted as if it were swimming, which Ibrahim believes it did 80 percent of the time.
From searching Erfoud for an unknown fouiller to putting together the pieces of a Spinosaurus puzzle, Ibrahim never gave up. The hard work of Ibrahim and his companions paid off. Scientists have been able to learn a great deal from the team's discoveries. In the end, Ibrahim was able to do an amazing thing; he was able to make a dinosaur be “born again.”
[Source: National Geographic]