Indiana Jones and the Lost Dinosaur

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim’s fabled adventure to find Spinosaurus is a grand tale—which he reveals at The Straz for his talk on Feb. 21. Here, we get behind-the-scenes info in an exclusive interview.

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Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, a young paleontologist who lives in Chicago, joined the ranks of the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer after his decade-plus journey to rediscover Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur, made international headlines. Originally discovered by scientist Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was destroyed one night in World War II when Allied bombs hit the Munich Museum. In elementary school, Nizar determined he would become the scientist who found the lost dinosaur. In a wild series of events almost too unbelievable for Hollywood, Dr. Ibrahim achieved his dream. He’ll tell you all about it right here in a few weeks, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him by phone to talk about his miraculous life, the importance of science and why all little kids go bananas over dinosaurs.

CITA: Let’s talk about this incredible story you have about finding Spinosaurus. It’s an Indiana Jones plot, complete with Nazis, chance encounters, everything. This was a long journey. What kept you searching, why didn’t you quit?

DR. NIZAR IBRAHIM: That’s a good question. It is a pretty incredible story, and it does have all of these elements. That’s really what makes this not your standard dinosaur discovery story—you go somewhere, you find a few bones, you put them together and that’s it. This story has so many layers and angles. There’s World War II, the discovery and destruction of ancient treasures from the age of dinosaurs, the fossil hunter who had a few bones who I was trying to find . . . and there’s the other aspects like the use of this modern, cutting-edge technology. There’s something for everyone in this presentation. It has history, science, adventure. So, I think that’s what makes it such a compelling story.

Why did I not quit? That’s also a good question. Because in many ways, this story unfolded a little bit like a . . . yes, like a Hollywood adventure movie. You think that certain things only happen in the movies like the chance encounter with the fossil hunter. You think . . . if you saw that in a movie you’d be like ‘yeah, right. Hollywood.’

But I think that … I am at the core very optimistic. Overly so. But you need this optimism and enthusiasm to keep you going. The discovery kind of absorbs you and becomes an obsession, I’d say, so the thought of giving up never crosses your mind. There was one moment I thought it wasn’t going to work out right before the big chance encounter, and I thought I was going to throw in the towel. I’d tried everything to find this mystery man. There were many difficult moments, but you have to persevere.  And, you know, these things require a lot of hard work. You put in so much hard work you say, I can’t quit. I’ve put in so much time and work and sweat and blood. I can’t quit. I have to see this through to the end. And that’s what happened. When it all comes together at the end it’s a real magical feeling. The disparate moments are part of the process.

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Spinosaurus (meaning “spine lizard”) lived in what now is North Africa about 112 to 97 million years ago. (Tyler Keillor and Lauren Conroy, University of Chicago.)

CITA: Can you give us a snapshot of what really blew your mind in the adaptations of Spinosaurus?

NI: I’ll try not to give too much away, but the arms and the legs of Spinosaurus blew my mind.

CITA: Because they didn’t match up?

NI: Not so much about them in relation to each other, but those two parts of the body have very unusual adaptations and unique adaptations not seen in any other dinosaur. The bone structure. Combine all these factors and you get a water-loving dinosaur.

CITA: We were transfixed by the similarities in skull structure and pressure sensors in Spinosaurus that are similar to alligators, which we have a lot of in Florida. Is it a stretch or accurate to say that our alligators are related to Spinosaurus?

NI: Well, yes and no. They are related, but the closest relative to dinosaurs is birds.  Birds are direct descendants of predatory dinosaurs, but we did look a lot at alligators when we were studying Spinosaurus because we do a lot of comparative anatomy. Alligators are really key to studying certain aspects of Spinosaurus anatomy, but just because animals look similar doesn’t mean they are closely related. We see similar kinds of adaptations over and over again in different groups of animals not closely related: torpedo shapes, for example. Snout shapes. Conical teeth for catching fish.

CITA: But Spinosaurus doesn’t shed teeth like an alligator or crocodile?

NI: No, dinosaurs shed their teeth all the time. That’s why we find so many dinosaur teeth. Sometimes in fossils we find the tooth underneath about to push the other tooth out. So, no need for dentists.

CITA: So, you’re not finding any dentists in the fossil record in the Northern Sahara?

NI [laughs]: That’s right.

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Rendering of Alanqa saharica. (Davide Bonadonna)

CITA: We kind of want your job except we’re worried we couldn’t handle the detail work in the lab after the field. We have one other question about relations, though—you discovered a flying reptile called Alanqa saharica. Is this guy related to pelicans?

NI: Not closely related, no. This is a completely different group of flying creatures. A Saharan pterosaur. Pterosaurs are kind of related to dinosaurs, but they’re not dinosaurs themselves. They evolved before bats did. There are only four groups who developed flight: insects, birds, pterosaurs and bats. They all evolved flight in different ways. If you compare bat wings to bird wings they look quite different. Pterosaurs are incredible creatures, the largest flying animals of all time. They pushed the boundaries of biomechanics. The Saharan pterosaur is the largest flying creature known from the African continent. We are working on new fossils right now that suggest that it grew to an even larger size than we had estimated.

CITA: The first wingspan was 20 feet. What are you looking at now?

NI: Now we’re looking at something closer to between 26-30 feet.

CITA: What! So, it’s like a small airplane.

NI[laughs]: Yes, it’s pretty impressive. It would have cast a rather terrifying shadow soaring above you. These animals are like studying aliens. It raises interesting questions.  How would this creature take flight? To give you an idea of size, when it was walking around on land with its wings folded, it would walk around on all fours with this long neck. It would be as tall as a giraffe.

CITA: How is that even possible? You’re blowing our minds.

NI: These things had large, very large muscles. We’re trying to figure out how they grew, how they flew. We have some fossils of hatchlings, so it’s an ongoing project. We’ve found new snake fossils of early snakes and understanding snake evolution. We described trace fossils like dinosaur tracks and burrows, so it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Spinosaurus is the most famous of this system, but there are many others. We’re trying to describe an entire lost world, an entire ancient ecosystem. This is a great opportunity to see how ecosystems change over time—over millions of years. We can look at the Sahara and see how things changed. We can see what happened when continents moved around, when the climate was going crazy, when the land was covered in giant predators.

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Nizar Ibrahim and team members in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: As you’re discovering, are you coming across information about the ecosystem that you can teach us like is the rain more acidic or is the composition of the atmosphere such that it creates better buoyancy for a bird this size?

NI: There are many questions we’re trying to answer. We are really just beginning to understand the Sahara, starting to shed light on this massive land mass. It’s important to understanding the history of life on earth. We’re understanding now how these animals are carving out ecological niches, the “arms race” as it were, for one of the most bizarre ecosystems of this planet’s history.

CITA: You work in the Kam Kam region between Morocco and Algiers in Northern Africa. Can you describe these conditions for us? Also, you’ve mentioned elsewhere you have to be aware of dangers from bandits and smugglers—what’s that all about?

NI: Yeah, one of the reasons we know so little about the dinosaurs of the Sahara versus all the information we have from Wyoming or Colorado is because it’s such a challenging area. You have to bring supplies for an entire team, there are no roads. It’s not easy. You do face the desert challenges like sandstorms and snakes, but the Sahara is also, to a certain extent, a lawless place. There’s no police station around the corner. It’s a vast ocean of sand and rocks. You read in the news that there are groups looting in the Sahara, and there are armed groups. So, you need a military escort in some areas. They will keep an eye on you from a distance or they have to stay with you at all times. It’s the kind of place where every now and then a foreigner is kidnapped.  Items get smuggled across borders. It’s challenging, but it’s the ultimate frontier for paleontology. Things that we uncover there . . . there is always the chance that we’ll find something that may revolutionize our field or at the very least shake up things precisely because we know so very little. In Montana, you might find another T. rex, but in Africa, it’s huge areas of land that have never been explored before. To give you an idea of scale, the whole desert is about the same size of the United States.

CITA: So, you’d be working in, say, the New Jersey part.

NI[laughs]: Yeah, you could say that.

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Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Ernst Stromer’s monographs, 1915.

CITA: During your adventure to find Spinosaurus, you located Ernst Stromer’s granddaughter, who still lives in the family castle. How did it feel when you met her? And, later, how did you feel when you finally saw the life-sized rendering of Spinosaurus from the bones you found?

NI: Well, meeting Stromer’s granddaughter was really something. When you’re working as a scientist you work from the people who came before you, but they tend to be just names. You don’t really find out much about them. With Stromer, it was different because I really entered his world. I was trying to find out more about his expeditions, then before I knew it I was visiting places he went and trying to track down his family castle. That’s when I learned his granddaughter was alive and looking after the castle in Bavaria. Restoring Stromer’s legacy became part of the story. It wasn’t about just finding the dinosaur anymore. He was a very inspiring human being. You know, it was a strange feeling first going to the castle. There were black and white pictures of the expedition that uncovered Spinosaurus and his handwritten notes and journal. Incredible things. Handwritten letters, letters about the finds and one to his sons in the war. He lost two of his three sons in the war. So much drama. His science career was going so well for him, he’d made all these incredible discoveries, yet in a few years he lost everything. To walk around the family castle in Bavaria was special. It was very emotional. So, restoring Stromer’s work became a part of what I was doing.

Seeing the skeleton for the first time . . . was love at first sight. Experts assembled the skeleton in a computer. But seeing it life size . . . You can read the numbers on the computer, so you know this creature is about 60 feet in length, but it’s only when you see it mounted in front of you that you appreciate the actual size of this river monster. Standing next to its giant head, I remember one of the first things I thought was what if I was swimming next to this in that ancient river system? How would I feel as this thing was sort of peering at me. Giant jaws. A water-living dinosaur trying to catch you in the water. Incredible, formidable predator. That’s the first time I was able to appreciate the creature’s sheer size. Spinosaurus for me is fascinating because of all the weird adaptations it has, but most people will remember it’s even longer than T. rex. The first time I saw it mounted I appreciated it for the size.

CITA: So, could you contextualize that size for us? Is it like the length of two city buses?

NI: I don’t know about two city buses, but it’s much longer than one city bus. One of the crocs we have from this period is the length of a city bus, and this croc is quite a bit shorter than Spinosaurus. Actually, I do remember trying to find a good example for size that would explain 60 feet in length, but I couldn’t find anything common enough to make the comparison. When you see it on the big screen and the images I show, will help you get a picture of it life-sized.

CITA: You’ve said in other interviews you were about 6 or 7 years old when you decided to find Spinosaurus. You were a dinosaur kid. What was the first dinosaur you fell in love with?

NI: I don’t know a straightforward answer. I don’t know when it started with dinosaurs. I know I was drawing dinosaurs at 5 years old. I wrote my name and age next to a picture I made, so it provided a date stamp of when it sort of started. Around that time, I went to the natural history museum and saw these towering skeletons. So many dinosaurs were incredible, these mythological dragons, but yet they were real animals in real ecosystems. They weren’t imaginary. They existed at some point. I loved all the famous dinosaurs, all the North American dinosaurs like T. rex.  The thing about Spinosaurus that got me interested was that it wasn’t one of the famous dinosaurs, like T. rex or stegosaurus. It was more interesting—giant spines on his back and was enormous, but that’s all we knew. Spinosaurus hadn’t captured the imagination yet, like the others, it was so mysterious. We didn’t know what it looked like, it was the yeti or Loch Ness Monster—that elusive dinosaur, except it was real. I think that’s what got me interested, and the entire ecosystem Spinosaurus lived in. We know virtually nothing of the north Sahara like we do parts of North America.

CITA: You’re in this north Sahara frontier exploring. It’s gotta be exciting to come across the possibilities of what could have existed in this ecosystem. This was a lush, tropical wetlands brimming with predators and nobody really knew what they were eating.  You realized you’d discovered with Spinosaurus a semi-aquatic, fish-eating predator. They ate sawfish. We still have sawfish in Florida waters today.

NI: They’re not the same kind of sawfish, but they are similar. The sawfish that we have in our [Cretaceous North African] river system is freshwater, about 25 feet in length, and sawfish today get big but not that big. And there were other fish, the giant car-sized coelacanth. Let me tell you about the ecosystem with Spinosaurus. When you’re out there in the desert you really appreciate what we call deep time, that’s what we call geologic time. You appreciate that while you’re in the desert. It’s a big, hot place. The last thing you’re thinking about are fish and rivers. But the fossils you’re picking up are the backbones of giant fish or scales of huge lungfish or armor plates of giant crocodile-like predators. You start to piece together this ecosystem in your mind, and you can paint a pretty accurate picture.

If we could travel back in time 100 million years, and I’ll take you back in time in this Nat Geo show, what we see is this vast river ecosystem that stretched across Africa, across the Sahara, that was the size of the United States. Back in that time, our planet was really going through these hothouse conditions, these extremes in temperatures. It was quite arid overall—no ice on the poles, so the dinosaurs were experiencing violent storms, not very stable conditions and it was very dry. Then you have these giant river systems where all the biodiversity is concentrated. The animals are huge, absolutely enormous. I call this ecosystem the River of Giants.

You have 6 or 7 different kinds of giant freshwater sharks, a giant car-sized coelacanth, lungfish, crocodile-like predators, all of these creatures live in this river system, which must have been incredibly productive. You also have pterosaurs, Spinosaurus, flying reptiles and one thing we found out is that many of the predators in this ecosystem were relying on fish, even predators who were not specialized fish eaters at all. Spinosaurus took advantage of this abundant food supply, this semi-aquatic dinosaur was perfectly adapted to hunt giant coelacanths.

It’s a really bizarre ecosystem because the dinosaurs common to other ecosystems we know are not very common to this one. So, it’s a predator’s paradise. We have no modern equivalent or one from the dinosaur times, either.

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River of Giants by Davide Bonadonna. National Geographic Magazine, October 2014.

CITA: Now that we have an expert, we hope you can answer a riddle for us. Which is: why do you think it is that little kids everywhere love dinosaurs?

NI [laughs]: Quite a few people from different backgrounds have tried to answer this question and they’ve come up with quite a few hypotheses. Some people think that dinosaurs are, yes, big and scary but they’re extinct, so they can’t really harm you . . . kids can exert some control over these monsters by learning their names and facts about them.  I don’t know. Others say dinosaurs represent our parents, that kids are terrified of their parents and impressed with everything their parents can do. Parents are so powerful. So, dinosaurs represent Daddy and Mommy and all the power they have. However, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the curiosity. First, there are lots of kinds of extinct creatures. And not all of them are very popular. Dinosaurs are in a league of their own. I think dinosaurs push the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re the largest land animals of all time, some weighed as much as a whole herd of elephants. They ruled this planet 118 million years—for a very, very long time. I think that’s something that captures the imagination because we’ll never be around for that long. These creatures were around a long time and that alone captures the imagination of people. The best explanation I can think of is that dinosaurs are so bizarre. They are, in many ways, unlike any animals alive today. Look at a mammoth. It’s hairy, but it sort of looks like an elephant, so it’s familiar. Dinosaurs have all these incredible adaptations, skulls and frills . . . when you work with these guys it’s like working with extraterrestrials from outer space. It’s unlike any animal around today. There’s no modern day equivalent. When it was time to look at physiology or biology you’re really kind of starting from scratch. The fact that they’re so alien-looking and from this alien world from their time on this planet; I think that’s what happens. People ask me about kids, why they love them so much, but it’s really everyone. In these Nat Geo series, you see all kinds of people, people in their 30s, 40s, 80s . . . I don’t think there are many people who walk into the museum with these dinosaur skeletons and don’t stand in awe. Very few are like, “oh, whatever.” To get to experience the reality that dinosaurs existed—the imagination goes wild.

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

CITA: As we’re trying to understand the scope of “deep time” you work with, we’re thinking about perspective. Most of us live by to-do lists or calendar apps, and everything feels so important today, or for the next four years, or all this talk about the-world-is-going-to-end. But, you have a different perspective working in deep time. How does that affect your understanding of news, of modern society? When you’re out in the Sahara, do you ever imagine ‘what is the geologic record going to hold from these millennia, what will be left behind from us’?

NI: I think it helps to have this deep time perspective, and I think it would help us as humans to act smarter when it comes to making sure that we can be on this planet for as long as possible. If we want to understand things like long-term changes in climate or extinction or crisis in biodiversity, we must have this perspective of deep time. We’re trying to understand these things but we don’t understand long-term effects. We have numbers and data, so we can create models and predictions in a computer, but the only way to really understand how ecological changes play out in the long term on planet Earth is to travel back in time. These things have happened in the past: massive extinction events, dramatic changes in climate, all kinds of things, and we can see what happened to ecosystems and how they recovered.

One thing we do know looking into deep time  . . .  you know, one of the things people are worried about is that we might destroy all life on this planet, and it will be the end of planet earth. I think we shouldn’t worry about destroying the planet because I think we overestimate our power a bit. One thing that is pretty obvious is that our planet is going to recover at some point.  We are in the process of destroying a lot of biodiversity, and that is a real crime.

But the truth is—in a few million years, our planet is going to recover but humans won’t be around. We should protect our ecosystem. If we don’t care about plants or animals that we share this planet with, we should at least try to preserve the planet for selfish reasons because if we continue to act the way we are at the moment, it will be the end of humans on this planet. There will be a huge crisis in biodiversity, but some life forms will survive. Our planet is going to recover, and it will be fine in a few million years without humans around. It’s in our own interest to take better care of our planet. What we’re doing to ecosystems, and oceans, rainforests, and coral reefs, you name it, is ultimately going to harm us. And that is going to be a quite painful process [for humans to endure]. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us. We need the resources, the water, the food. So it’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of humans [to the planet’s survival].

What you mentioned is an interesting question because we are so focused on this tiny little slice of time that we call the present, as if that is all that matters, but if you are a paleontologist or a geologist, you can step back and see how tiny this slice of time is.

What is going to be left behind if some alien civilization finds earth one day . . .what are they going to find? The answer is difficult to tell, but the things we think are important are probably not going to be preserved in the geological records. Sometimes when you look at a geological section, you find gaps of a few million years missing. And we go, “oh! Three or four million years is missing, not a big deal.” But, as you know, that’s much longer than we’ve been around. You can have gaps from geological processes, so human activity could be missing from the geologic record altogether. Again, we should not overstate our importance. In a few million years, there may not be that much left that we could leave behind.

There’s one thing I think these extraterrestrial scientists would see is a big crisis in biodiversity, a mass extinction, like the one that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. And this one was—hopefully they could figure this out–caused by us, for the most part. There are always some plants and animals going extinct, what you call “background extinction,” and every now and then something very unusual happens. It could be a massive vulcanism, it could be a meteorite impact, or it could be the arrival of homo sapiens. It takes the planet a long time to recover, but it does. That’s one thing they’d see for sure: a mass extinction. Let’s hope they can’t figure out what we did to our planet because we won’t look very good in their history books.

CITA: Perhaps these extraterrestrial scientists will see the layers of fossils and find one thin sheet of plastic which will be all that is left of our time on earth.

NI[laughs]: That’s a possibility. The other thing is that it’s important to have this deep time perspective because it teaches us humility, which is something we always need. I often compare it to astronomy. If you talk to astronomers, they understand we are so small in space and insignificant in many ways. Paleontology is similar because we see how tiny we are in time. So we combine those two and that’s a hefty dose of humility.

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Nizar Ibrahim in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: We’re looking forward to you coming to share your stories of discoveries with us. What else should we know?

NI: Well, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you mentioned that you might not have the patience to go to the lab. People often think of paleontology as this work that goes out and collects fossils then puts them together, but it’s really so much more than that. And, it never really gets boring. You do have lab work, but that is always interesting. Sometimes you’re looking at the microstructure of dinosaur bones or another day you might be putting together a digital skeleton, or studying the chemical composition of the bones and what that tells you about the lifestyle of the animal. You teach students and lead expeditions, and do this National Geographic Live series. It’s the intersection of many fields—you never get bored and you’re not restricted to one academic box. You use tools from many different areas, and that’s worth mentioning.

One of the most rewarding things for me is to see how excited people get about science and exploration. I got a letter from someone coming to the show, and she’s flying in with her son to the Straz Center for the talk. It’s his seventh birthday present, and they’re flying all the way in from New Mexico. We have a wider impact beyond scientific exploration to affecting people, and an experience can change someone’s life. Children see the show and say ‘I want to do this, I’m going to be a scientist.’ That’s exciting.

CITA: That’s an amazing story! We see all the time the direct impact the performing arts have on children’s lives. And, for children who are here to see someone like you—who, at seven years old, decided to find dinosaurs. We hope that child asks you a question during the Q&A at the end. That story warms our hearts.

NI: His mom says he might be [laughs] ah, um, a little star struck. [laughs] So, I told her maybe we could do a meet and greet before or after the show. But yes, museums and performing arts centers are so important to culture. Ask any scientist how it began, and they’ll tell you ‘my parents took me to a museum at five years old’ or ‘I read a National Geographic story’ and these experiences create the passion. I’m trying to make sure young people in Morocco are exposed to this spark of curiosity. We need scientists and innovators, and these events trigger a real passion for culture.

I was just in Africa for a conference, and I told them there—as Africa has huge areas of cultural desert—and I said, it’s really terrible. Look at a place like London, for example, and you take away the culture, the museums, everything, then what’s left? A cold and souless place. That’s how you know how important a vibrant cultural landscape is.

CITA: Yes, yes, yes. We agree. Culture is the soul of humanity. We’re looking forward to seeing you here. There will be a huge audience who loves your work who will be eager to ask more questions at the end of your talk.

NI: Thank you and see you soon.