By LINDSAY WELBERS
At 32-year-old University of Chicago paleontology research scholar Nizar Ibrahim isn’t sure how he is going to top the first major find of his career.
Ibrahim presented the first semiaquatic dinosaur ever found to Hyde Park last Thursday at Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th St. He discovered the 50 foot-long river predator, with a massive, bony sail on its back.
Spinosaurus Aegyptiacus was found on the border between Morocco and Nigeria in the Sahara Desert. When it lived, 100 million years ago, the Sahara was part a massive river system that extended from present-day Egypt to Morocco.
Spinosaurus is nine feet longer than the longest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found, which happens to be the Field Museum’s Sue. In its long, slender jaws it had conical teeth like some modern crocodiles. It was capable of living on land, but probably spent the bulk of its time in the water. Researchers believe it ate other massive fish, like a 12-14 foot-long coelacanth.
While Ibrahim and his team get credit for finding, identifying and studying Spinosaurus. It was first discovered nearly a century ago by German paleontologist Ernst Stromer.
Stromer found the first Spinosaurus fossils in Egypt in 1912. He brought them back to Germany where they were destroyed by the bombing in World War II.
With his life’s work destroyed Stromer’s legacy began to fade, and he was largely forgotten when he died in 1952.
Ibrahim, who is of German-Moroccan heritage, started doing fieldwork in the Sahara when he was 25, after being inspired by Stromer’s career.
“I’ve always loved animals including dinosaurs and the Sahara was a great place to look for dinosaur fossils so I kind of decided to follow in his footsteps,” Ibrahim said. He chose Morocco because the rocks are roughly the same age as the rocks where Stromer found his Spinosaurus.
“Its an incredibly beautiful place. Its very difficult to work in. There’s sandstorms and snakes, it makes the Hollywood movies look kind of tame and boring,” Ibrahim said. “It’s not a stuntman doing something and there’s a doctor on call. If something goes wrong, and it happens all the time, you’re on your own. It’s a very unusual kind of experience.”
In searching for the Spinosaurus the team found fossils from lots of types of ancient predators, which means an unusually large number of the creatures living in this river were carnivores. But they did not find evidence of Spinosaurus in the field.
When Ibrahim and his Moroccan colleague, Samir Zouhri, were traveling back from the desert they stopped in an oasis town. An amateur fossil hunter, who knew Ibrahim and Zouhri were paleontologists, approached them with a box of unusual bones he had found.
“He had a cardboard box with some fossils and he wanted my opinion so he asked me ‘what do you think they are?’” Ibrahim said. “Most were covered in sand and sediment it was very difficult to study but one piece really caught my attention.”
It was a long, dense piece of bone with a big, red line running down the cross section. Ibrahim thought it was a piece of a rib or maybe a piece of Spinosaurus’ sail, but couldn’t be sure. They paid the man for the bones and took them back to Casablanca.
A year later, in 2009, Ibrahim was visiting Milan’s natural history museum, researchers invited him to view a partial skeleton they had stored in the basement.
A fossil dealer had donated the skeleton to science; it had big spines running down its back.
“My jaw dropped. There were leg bones, tailbones, almost a complete leg. I thought this does look like a new Spinosaurus skeleton. We were excited but we had a big problem. My Italian colleagues had no information whatsoever about where it came from,” Ibrahim said.
Without knowing where the fossil was found the researchers don’t have information about where the dinosaur lived or when. Knowing the exact site where the bones were found would allow them to be sure they all belong to the same creature.
“Also we kind of knew these bones were almost certainly smuggled out of the country of origin illegally and we wanted to return them, but how can you do that without knowing where they were found?” Ibrahim said. “Basically the scientific value of the find is seriously diminished.”
When he studied the dinosaur’s big, long spines he noticed in the cross section that they were very dense and had a big, red line running down the center.
“The bone looked so similar in texture and color and its so rare to find partial skeletons in this part of the world I wondered of maybe they came from the same individual animal (as the bones he had seen in Morocco) in which case the mystery man would be the man who found the dinosaur,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim did not know the man’s name or remember what he looked like, besides the fact he had a mustache. But finding one, specific man with a mustache in the Sahara Desert isn’t exactly an easy task.
So, in 2013 after finishing his doctoral thesis, Ibrahim and Zouhri traveled back to the Sahara to try and find the man who sold them the bones in a cardboard box years before.
The pair traveled along the border region talking to fossil hunters, looking for a man with a mustache among the 50,000 amateur fossils hunters in the area.
“Towards the end of our trip we’re sitting in the dusty street of a desert town sipping mint tea, as you do in Morocco, and I was ready to throw in the towel,” Ibrahim said. “At that moment, when I was at my lowest point, out of the corner of my eye I see a man walking past our table very rapidly. I caught a glimpse of his face; he had a mustache and looked eerily familiar. I had this déjà vu moment and my colleague’s eyes were wide open. This is the guy we were looking for.”
They chased the man down and when they caught up with him, it took him a few seconds to recognize the pair. In the remaining years the man had sold the rest of the skeleton to an Italian fossil dealer. The bones he sold Ibrahim and Zouhri were from the same skeleton resting in a museum basement in Milan.
Asking the amateur fossil hunter to show Ibrahim and Zouhri where he found the skeleton was like convincing a fisherman to show his best spots, but the man eventually agreed.
He took them to a cave in a rock escarpment, where they found more bones, including teeth and jaw pieces, and more spines belonging to Spinosaurus.
The skeleton is still not complete, but over 60 percent of the bones have been found. The fossils were shipped to Hyde Park where Ibrahim used the University of Chicago Medical Center’s CT scanners to study them. They were able to use 3D printing technology to create exact replicas for study.
The Spinosaurus skeleton replica is currently on display at the Smithsonian Natural History museum in Washington, D.C.
Using clues from its skeleton, researchers can determine that Spinosaurus spent most of its time in the water, but because its nostrils are located halfway down its long snout, could dig into tight spaces and continue to breathe.
The massive sail along its back was probably used for display or to warn other dinosaurs who these hunting grounds belonged to.
From the shape of its brain cavity they can determine it probably had good vision and saw in color. It very likely had a well-developed sense of smell. It used its long tail in swimming but laid eggs on land.
Ibrahim has been named a National Geographic Explorer and his focusing on studying pterosaurs, land dwelling dinosaurs with the ability to fly.
He is currently studying one that when standing on dry land would be as tall as a giraffe with a wingspan of 30 or 40 feet.