Like many kids, German-Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim nursed a fascination for dinosaurs from a young age. The difference is, he grew up and actually found one.
Ibrahim vividly remembers learning about Spinosaurus, a massive aquatic dinosaur whose only known bones were destroyed during World War II. As a kid, Ibrahim dreamed of finding new fossils of this giant — and in his mid-20s, he succeeded. (Watch his talk, “How we unearthed the spinosaurus.”) He tells the TED Blog the story of how sheer determination and a bit of magic led him to find the world’s most complete specimen of spinosaurus, and how he’s reconstructing the ancient ecosystem it inhabited.
Can you actually say, “I have discovered a dinosaur”?
I can. I led the team that re-discovered Spinosaurus, a 50-foot-long carnivore who hunted its prey in rivers 97 million years ago. I also discovered a big flying reptile with a 20-foot wingspan — the largest flying creature that lived in Africa, that we know of. We call it Alanqa saharica. “Alanqa” is an Arabic/Persian name for the phoenix. You know how the phoenix dies and then rises from the ashes? Well, our flying reptile disappeared seemingly forever, but by finding the fossils, we allowed it to rise from the ashes so we could reconstruct it. “Saharica” means “desert,” so the name means “the phoenix from the desert.” We also have found remains of giant plant-eating dinosaurs, crocodile-like predators and many other prehistoric creatures.
Being a paleontologist is, for me, about more than just discovering dinosaurs. They are only small pieces in a much bigger picture. Since I was five, I’ve had a deep-seated fascination not only with dinosaurs but with animals of all kinds — with their anatomy and diversity. At the same time, my imagination was captured by the idea of traveling to places with exotic, magical names like “Timbuktu” or the “Gobi Desert.” So with paleontology, I get to combine all these passions.
In the Sahara Desert, I dig for fossils of the Cretaceous period, of creatures that lived there 100 million years ago, when the Sahara was a massive river system. I collect fossils of fish, turtles, flying reptiles, crocodile-like hunters, little amphibians. I also get to study the geology to understand what a river system looked like. With all the data I find, I reconstruct prehistoric ecosystems.
Ecosystems from the mid-Cretaceous of Africa are different from any we know of now. It was a time of extremes — extreme climates, extreme global warming and high sea levels, and a preponderance of giant predators on land, in the water and in the air. It was a very important — and unusual — period in the evolution of life.
It’s mind-boggling to think that the Sahara Desert was once an incredibly lush environment.
People sometimes forget about the deep time perspective. We’re so focused and obsessed with our tiny slice in time — our gadgets, Wall Street, what-have-you seem very important to us. But these might not even be visible in the future geological record. Really, we only inhabit a tiny episode of this incredible, epic story — the history of life on our planet. The greatest story out there.
Above: Watch Nizar Ibrahim’s TED Talk: “How we unearthed the Spinosaurus.”
What does a day in the life of a dinosaur hunter look like?
Well, it’s not a typical workday. We work under very interesting — and often difficult — conditions, mostly in the border region between Morocco and Algeria. When in the field, we go out to the desert with Land Rovers. Early explorers had camels — but that’s pretty much the only difference. We still have to work in scorching heat, with sandstorms and smugglers, bandits and snakes. We’ll stay in the desert for anywhere from a week to over a month, typically in tents.
Sometimes there are places in the middle of nowhere where you can get a meal and a place to sleep. But the Sahara is a lawless place. All the norms and infrastructure we take for granted often don’t exist. But it is also a pristine place, in many ways. It’s timeless. Camel caravans follow the same routes they did for hundreds of years.
For various geological reasons, fossils in the Moroccan-Algerian border region are often exposed along steep edges, so there’s a lot of climbing on sharp rocks involved. We spend a lot of time walking around, looking for ghosts from deep time: fossils. That’s the best way. You can’t really spot things out of a moving car.
What do you look for when you’re walking?
We’re looking for bone that’s weathering at the surface, so there’s a chance that there is more underground, where it’s been protected from erosion, rain and so on. We’re talking about hundreds of kilometers, so you really need to develop a pretty good eye. We do have geological maps, so we know roughly where rocks of the right age are cropping up. It’s difficult, though, especially in the Sahara. It’s much easier to look for fossils in Wyoming or Montana, or in famous fossil localities in Canada. There are parts of Canada where dinosaur skeletons are just lying around. Finding things in the Sahara is much, much harder. You’ll find bits and pieces, teeth, enough clues to reconstruct part of the ecosystem. But finding exceptionally well-preserved fossils or partial skeletons is like looking for a needle not in a haystack, but in a desert.
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