Fellows Friday

The dinosaur hunter: TED Fellow Nizar Ibrahim searches for lost worlds

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim with the footprint of a predatory dinosaur, in  Gara Sbaa, southeastern Morocco, near the Algerian border. Photo: Robert Loveridge

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim poses with the footprint of a predatory dinosaur in southeastern Morocco, near the Algerian border. Photo: Robert Loveridge

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.

Alanqa saharica, one of Ibrahim's discoveries, is a flying reptile with a 20-foot wingspan. Alanqa is the Arabic/Persian word for phoenix. Image: TK

A rendering of alanqa saharica, one of Ibrahim’s discoveries. This flying reptile had a 20-foot wingspan — and its name means “phoenix of the desert.” Artwork: Davide Bonadonna, advised by Nizar Ibrahim

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.

Nizar-Ibrahim's-TED-Talk

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.

Ibrahim looking down an escarpment in the border region between Morocco and Algeria, where Ibrahim does field work. "Getting up here involves dangerous climbing, including a jump from one rocky ledge to another, avoiding a long fall to our deaths," says Ibrahim. "And you can see my shirt is showing the first signs of desert climbing wear and tear." Photo: Zac Kinney

Ibrahim in the border region between Morocco and Algeria, where he does his fieldwork. “Getting up here sometimes involves dangerous climbing, including jumps from one rocky ledge to another,” says Ibrahim. “My shirt is showing the first signs of desert climbing wear and tear.” Photo: Zac Kinney

Tell us about Spinosaurus. What makes it special?

It’s the largest predatory dinosaur that we know of — bigger than T. rex. But to me, the most interesting thing is that it is also the first semi-aquatic dinosaur that we’ve found. It spent a substantial amount of time in the water, going after giant, car-sized fish. It had a seven-foot sail on its back, and long, slender jaws like a crocodile. Its skull is about as long as a person is tall. It might have had webbed feet; they certainly look like they may have been used in paddling. It had dense bone for buoyancy control, too. It is really a very bizarre creature, in many ways about as surprising as some of the fossils we found of early whales — when whales still had legs.

We have fossils of these in Egypt, actually. Whales are mammals that returned to the water, so before we even found their fossils, we could predict that during a certain period, whales would have had long legs, according to the predictions  of evolution. And lo and behold, we found those fossils. If you cut through the blubber and other tissues of some modern whales, you’ll find tiny remnants of hip bones buried deep inside the flesh. Our bodies — and those of all animals — have our evolutionary history written all over our skeletons. You just have to know where to look.

Do you get to name your own dinosaurs when you find them?

Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Spinosaurus already had a name, as it had been found about a 100 years ago. The only remains — a few bones, including part of the giant sail, had been in a museum in Munich, and were destroyed during World War II. The scientist who had found the bones in Egypt — German paleontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach — was more or less forgotten.

An artist's rendering, based on Ibrahim's research, of Spinosaurus and the river ecosystem that existed 100 million years ago, in what is now the Sahara desert. Image: Davide Bonadonna Maganuco

An artist’s rendering of spinosaurus and the river ecosystem that existed 100 million years ago in what is now the Sahara Desert. Artwork: Davide Bonadonna, advised by Nizar Ibrahim and Simone Maganuco

My rediscovering Spinosaurus in Morocco was also about restoring his legacy. It was like all the stars aligned so I could close that circle. Being German and Moroccan, I was also probably the only person in the world that could really pull the story off. You’ll have to watch the National Geographic documentary to see why, but it involved a lot of detective work and many crazy coincidences. I actually set out to find Spinosaurus when I was six or seven years old.

How could you have known about the Spinosaurus at such a young age?

It didn’t have a big presence in dinosaur books, because so little was known about it. But there was enough to realize that this was an odd, poorly known animal and that the only known remains were destroyed. I thought, “I’d love to go back to the Sahara and find a new skeleton.”

When I finally started my fieldwork in the Sahara, I was in my mid-20s. I had never been there, but I took a group of people to one of the most beautiful — and most dangerous — places in the world. They just had to trust me.

How did you know where to look for Spinosaurus?

It’s a complicated and magical story. We’d found bits and pieces of spinosaurus, but a new partial skeleton had actually been found by a Moroccan fossil hunter. He’s a local man who digs for fossils for money — not a paleontologist. He didn’t know anything about this animal, so was unaware of the value of the bones.

They were smuggled out of the country, and parts of the skeleton ended up in a museum in Italy. Other parts had been taken to a Moroccan university collection. My Italian colleagues were not sure what to make of the remains, since they had no information about the precise geographical origin of the find. But we suspected early on that this could be Spinosaurus.

Because I happened to work with these Italian colleagues, I found out about this skeleton. And because I worked in Morocco, I had actually once met this fossil hunter, who’d shown me some mysterious bones in a cardboard box. At the time I didn’t know for sure these belonged to the same Spinosaurus skeleton as the bones in the Italian museum. All I could remember about the man was that he had a mustache.

Spinosaurus bones in the field. Photo: Cristiano Dal Sasso

Spinosaurus bones in the field. Photo: Cristiano Dal Sasso

I had seen these bones on different continents and at different times during my work on this project. But in my mind, the bones from Morocco and the ones in Italy seemed to match. I thought, “If they really match, it’s the same skeleton, so maybe that fossil hunter found all this. How can I find him?” We hoped he’d be in the region where rocks from that period are found, but there are thousands of people digging for fossils in Morocco, and there are about 250 kilometers of outcrops in the Kem Kem Beds, where Spinosaurus teeth and other bits had been found. It’s a big place and all we knew is that we were looking for a man with a mustache.

Miraculously, we found him on the last day of our search. We were sitting in a café in an oasis town, sipping mint tea. We had already covered a lot of ground, going to southern localities and visiting places where local people dig tunnels to find fossils. We talked to locals, to no avail. We were ready to give up. There was no way I could spend weeks in Morocco looking for this person.

Then, at that moment — it’s almost as if someone wrote the storyline — this man walked past our table. I caught a glimpse of his face, and it was like a déjà-vu moment. I thought, “This is the guy!” I caught up with him. He took us back to the site, and we found many more bones there. We reunited all the fossils, and are now making sure that they will be returned to their country of origin.

You could call it a miracle. But at the same time, nobody in their right mind would have traveled all the way to the Sahara to look for this man. I did, just because I had to make it happen.

A three-toed dinosaur track from a predatory dinosaur. Photo: Nizar Ibrahim

A three-toed dinosaur track from a predatory dinosaur. Photo: Nizar Ibrahim

So you had this vision of finding Spinosaurus when you were a child — and you achieved that in your 20s. Can you top such a feat? What’s next?

I have plans for a couple of projects that could be as interesting, if not more so. But I’m continuing my work in the Sahara, because it’s a big treasure trove. Who knows what we are going to find next? It might be something really cool.

Meanwhile, we put together a big international exhibition that will travel around the world for five years. It includes Spinosaurus, all these creatures from the Cretaceous period and the historical background. It was in Washington, D.C., until April. Now it’s going to Milan, then to Berlin.

One thing I’d like to do is take the exhibition to Morocco, to make sure we tell this incredible story to the young people of the region. Sadly, many Morrocans don’t know anything about their natural heritage. Morocco’s dinosaurs are pulling in crowds in D.C., and breaking visitor records at the National Geographic Museum — yet in Morocco, some people don’t even know that their country has produced some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries. The country is slowly catching up, as are other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Every culture and country needs explorers, people that are pushing boundaries, and scientists working on topics that are beyond the norm.

Of course, this will take resources — a good university infrastructure, for a start, and job prospects. But that early spark of enthusiasm and passion — kids have that. They’re natural-born scientists. Kids are incredibly inquisitive, and for many scientists, like me, the thing that got them hooked was a visit to a natural history museum, a zoo, an aquarium, even a book. It’s important to invest in capturing imaginations. Not every country has plentiful natural resources, but every country has young brains. It’s the world’s biggest asset.

Nizar Ibrahim splits rock at an excavation site for spinosaurus. He has been looking for the dinosaur since he was a child. Photo:  Nanni Fontana, National Geographic Italy

Nizar Ibrahim splits rock at an excavation site for Spinosaurus. He has been looking for the dinosaur since he was a child. Photo: Nanni Fontana, National Geographic Italy