Paleontologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Nizar Ibrahim weaves together clues from the Cretaceous period, Nazi Germany, and present-day Africa to track down a massive and bizarre dinosaur dubbed Spinosaurus.
German/Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, a postdoctoral scholar in vertebrate anatomy and paleontology at the University of Chicago, scours the deserts of North Africa for clues to life in the Cretaceous period, when the area was a large river system teeming with a profusion of diverse life. In addition to unearthing many huge dinosaur bones, he has discovered fossil footprints and a new species of flying reptile with an 18-foot wingspan that lived 95 million years ago. His upcoming paper describing the ecosystem of what is now Morocco's Sahara Desert in the mid-Cretaceous period will be a milestone, providing the most detailed account of the diversity, paleoecology, and geologic context of fossil vertebrates from North Africa. His description is especially important, since northern Africa and the mid-Cretaceous period are underexplored and underrepresented in paleontology. "We found an entire lost world; a window on a moment of major evolutionary change," he says.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?
As a child, I was always interested in animals, in particular their anatomy and evolution. I was five when I received my first book about dinosaurs and it inspired me to want to write a book of my own about paleontology. When I was told that I would have to study hard and get a Ph.D., I wrote my name under the author's and added the word "Dr." in front of it, but I had trouble remembering which way the letter "D" should be pointing. I made the decision then and there that I would become a paleontologist.
I am so inspired by the history of life on our planet and feel it is such a fascinating series of events. Paleontology is our best tool to understand this amazing account, and I consider it an absolute privilege to be able to add a few pages to the story.
What has been your most rewarding or memorable experience in the field?
It is difficult to choose one particular memorable experience; and sometimes the most challenging moments almost seamlessly turn into the most rewarding moments. Locating and unearthing the largest dinosaur bone ever found in the Kem Kem region of southeastern Morocco was a thrilling experience, as was my first discovery of pterosaur (flying reptile) jaw fragments. There is a real buildup of excitement when prospecting for fossils because most finds begin as small little bits of bone protruding from the sediment, and the element of discovery and surprise is ever present.
The challenges I face during my fieldwork are very diverse and range from violent sandstorms and extensive flooding to working alongside large groups of armed guards in the middle of the Sahara under an umbrella of 125º+ heat. Several years ago when I was collecting data for my doctoral thesis, I led a small expedition to the Sahara, on a very restrictive budget, with just one vehicle and extremely limited supplies, which turned out to be one of the most challenging trips. There's an element of time pressure during fieldwork, with long days spent searching for fossils and an ever looming expedition end date.
What's a normal work day like for you?
My days revolve around research and preparing scientific papers for publication. Some days I may organize presentations, discuss future projects and funding proposals, plan expeditions, or review scientific illustrations with colleagues in Chicago and around the world. Other days I may consult with fossil preparators on ongoing work or exchange ideas regarding jacketed fossils that await preparation.
What advice would you give your younger self?
First: Follow your dreams and don't let anyone take them away from you. Second: Don't be discouraged. Hurdles and obstacles are a part of life and can be overcome. Third: Make big plans. (Yes, you can totally lead an expedition to the Sahara!)
If you could have people do one thing to help save the planet what would it be?
People pay taxes for all kinds of things. I would like people to contribute to a global "biodiversity tax" in order to fund the protection of endangered plants and animals and the world's ecological hotspots. I think that would be money well spent.