Imagine a land filled with tall trees and lush green ferns. An abundance of rivers reflect sunlight in a sky with billowy clouds. That was the home of dinosaurs 110 million years ago. Today, that land is known as “Gadoufaoua,” part of the Sahara Desert where “camels fear to tread.” It is a harsh area without water. To paleontologists, however, it is heaven. This section of the Sahara is home to one of the richest concentrations of dinosaur fossils.
The Indiana Jones of Paleontology
Dr. Paul Sereno explores that desert for the National Geographic. He’s the “Indiana Jones” of paleontology. This is the science of fossils. Fossils are the remains of animals and plants. Dr. Sereno’s specialty is unearthing dinosaur bones.
To put together an expedition, Dr.
Sereno gathers all the papers ever written about an area. For the Gadoufaoua
region, the papers were in French. Then he searches for available maps. Topographical maps show all man-made and natural features like roads, cities, countries, mountains, and seas. He also uses geologic maps. These maps show the ages and kinds of rocks exposed in the region. Dr. Sereno says, “After planning our attack, I find crazy young people who enjoy being heated to 130 F in a strange land. They need to be able to work extremely hard for no pay.”
A Great Discovery
A decade ago, Dr. Sereno and his team explored the northern desert regions of Niger, a North African nation. One of the team members found a very interesting site in Gadoufaoua. Dr. Sereno
said, “We realized it was a great find. The bones belonged to some kind of strange plant-eating sauropod (long-necked dinosaur.)” The bones were stuck in solid sandstone. So the team carved them out in big blocks and took them back to the lab in Chicago. After ten years of cleaning and studying the fossils, a surprising discovery revealed itself.
At first, Dr. Sereno didn’t believe the jaw they discovered belonged to a dinosaur. He said, “In a moment of inspiration, I sensed I held the jaw the wrong way.” He rotated it and realized all of its teeth were in front, not on the side. “A very strange face had just been born.”
Dr. Sereno and his students named the creature Nigersaurus taqueti. This translates as “Niger’s reptile in honor of Taquet.” It was found in Niger and Dr. Philippe Taquet, a French paleontologist, was the first to find bones of the unusual dinosaur in the 1950’s.
This herbivore, or plant eater, is unlike any dinosaur paleontologists had ever seen before. Dr. Sereno said, “It is the jaws that are off the charts.” The muzzle is wider than the rest of the head. Imagine jaws shaped like a vacuum cleaner at the end of a long neck. It could have been named “Hooversaurus.”
Dr. Sereno took a CT scan of the jaw of Nigersaurus. A CT scan uses X-rays to see inside objects. Nigersaurus’
pictures showed eight replacement teeth stacked behind each operating tooth. When one tooth wore out, another took its place. With more than 500 teeth, there was quite a monthly income from the dino-tooth fairy.
Dr. Sereno said, “Nigersaurus sets the Guinness record for tooth replacement.” The dinosaur’s fifty columns of teeth line up tightly along the front edge of its squared-off jaw. It formed what served as a foot long pair of scissors.
There are other oddities about the
Nigersaurus. For example, the backbone was more air than bone. Expedition team member, Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, said, “The vertebrae are so paper-thin that it is difficult to imagine them coping with the stress of everyday usebut we know they did it, and they did it well.”
Many people see dinosaurs as long-necked beasts. They roamed the Earth with their heads held high like reptilian giraffes. Not Nigersaurus. It had the body of an elephant and a walnut-sized brain. Atop a long neck, its flat face could barely see above its back. Nigersaurus’
head remained low, eating ferns and horsetails like a “Mesozoic cow”. From head to tail, the creature measured thirty feet.
Dr. Sereno and his wife, Gabrielle Lyon, started Project Exploration. It is a Chicago science education organization to get kids interested in science. Fourteen year-old Arieshae
Parker was one of those kids. She said, “I learned something new that no one else knows about.” On November 15, 2007, Arieshae and nine other high school students traveled to National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C. There they announced a major discovery. They unveiled a 30-foot long dinosaur skeleton found in AfricaNigersaurus taqueti.
You can learn more about what Arieshae
and her friends learned at www.projectexploration.org. It is an interactive website featuring the science of Nigersaurus.