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Tenacious to the Bone

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim garnered fame — and controversy — when he found the largest predatory dinosaur ever known. Now he’s got even bigger plans.

By Gemma Tarlach
May 16, 2016 12:00 AMMay 21, 2019 6:05 PM
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus trawls for mesozoic fish. Illustration by Brian Engh
'Spinosaurus aegyptiacus trawls for mesozoic fish.


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To understand the drive that fuels paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, just ask his longtime mentor, British paleobiologist Dave Martill, about one of their early expeditions. It was 2008, and their team was hours away from the nearest village in the sweltering, empty deserts of Morocco. They had come to analyze ancient sediment layers, not to hunt dinosaurs. But Ibrahim, then in his mid-20s, spotted an enormous fossilized bone on a steep slope.

The team wasn’t prepared to excavate a fossil, never mind one weighing about a hundred pounds. They didn’t even have plaster of Paris — a paleontologist’s go-to goo to prep fossils for transport from the field. Ibrahim was undeterred.

“He said, ‘I must have this,’ ” says Martill, with a sigh, from his office at England’s University of Portsmouth. By Martill’s reckoning, he had to drive “about a hundred miles” to find even building plaster, a poor prepping substitute. And the arduous work of excavating and plastering the fossil was not the end of the saga, Martill recalls: “Building plaster’s got clay in it and takes ages to dry, so we looked for firewood — which is not easy to find in a desert — dug a trench on either side of the bone and lit fires to encourage it to dry.”

The team then hauled the fossil in a makeshift stretcher down the slope to their Land Rover. The vehicle had to carry not just the bone and the researchers, but all of the expedition’s equipment and supplies.

Nizar IbrahimErnie Mastroianni/Discover

“By the time it was fully loaded, the Rover [frame] was resting on its wheels. The suspension was utterly flattened,” Martill recalls. At times, team members hopped out to help the truck make it up inclines. When they came to the first small settlement, they gave away all their food to lighten the load. “There was no way Nizar was going to leave that bone behind,” Martill says, adding dryly, “I’m glad we didn’t find another one.”

Determination that seems to border on obsession is one of Ibrahim’s defining traits. His ambitions and an unwavering focus to achieve them have taken him on an unconventional career trajectory, bringing both fame and enemies. He’s just getting started, though, and his resolve will come in handy: The German-Moroccan paleontologist wants no less than to change the way Africa views science, and the way scientists view Africa.

“When you have big dreams, it’s very easy to know what you need to do,” Ibrahim says. “You could have a hundred people telling you that you can’t do this or you can’t do that, but I don’t want that to hold me back. I have a strategy. I have long-term plans. I want to establish a real national museum with research collections in Morocco and get people in that part of the world interested in science and scientific exploration.”

And as for that infamous fossil that he refused to leave in the desert, much to his mentor’s chagrin? According to Ibrahim, it’s the humerus of a large herbivore, but he’s waiting to find more related bones before describing it formally in a journal. And describing large herbivores, quite frankly, has not been his focus. Since his first expedition to the Sahara in 2007, the 33-year-old has been after bigger prey.

Big Bones, Bigger Questions In 2014, Ibrahim made a splash in the international media when he published the description of a partial skeleton of Spinosaurus, as well as a new theoretical reconstruction of the dinosaur. The massive predator measured about 50 feet — longer even than T. rex. It lived along river systems in northern Africa during the middle of the Cretaceous period, about 100 million years ago. For decades before Ibrahim’s find, Spinosaurus had been one of paleontology’s great enigmas.

German scientist Ernst Stromer collected the first fossils of the animal in 1912 in Egypt, but the bones were destroyed during World War II when the Munich museum housing them was flattened in an air raid. No additional specimens were found, forcing modern paleontologists to study the lost dinosaur through Stromer’s notes and drawings, and a handful of photographs. Various theories emerged about the animal’s bizarre mix of features, including a long, crocodilian snout and a 6-foot-tall dorsal sail. Some researchers even dismissed Stromer’s predator as a mishmash of multiple species.

Stretching more than 150 miles near the Moroccan border with Algeria, the Kem Kem rock formation (shown in red) contains fossil-rich layers from a riverine world when Spinosaurus reigned. Dan Bishop/Discover and Google Earth/Landsat/SIO/NOAA/U.S. Navy/NGA/GEBCO

Hollywood’s interpretation of Spinosaurus landed a starring role as the main menace in the movie Jurassic Park III. But without actual fossils to analyze, the dinosaur seemed destined to remain a mystery.

When Ibrahim and his colleagues announced they’d found another Spinosaurusspecimen in the Moroccan desert, everything changed — for the dinosaur and for the young researcher who found it.

Suddenly Ibrahim was starring alongside Spinosaurus in a heavily promoted TV documentary; high-profile speaking gigs and funding for future expeditions followed. Last summer, a representative of Morocco’s king called Ibrahim, then a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago, with a personal invitation to attend the monarch’s jubilee as a VIP. In the process of applying for U.S. citizenship and restricted from overseas travel, Ibrahim declined.

Amid the fanfare and media attention, however, both Ibrahim and his interpretation of Spinosaurus drew fire from some of his peers.

“There is always an element of jealousy,” says Martill. “Nizar has exceptional powers of observation, and he’s a bloody hard worker. . . . He’s the one who makes the effort. Nobody else but Nizar could have found where the Spinosaurus fossils came from. He had the knowledge of Arabic and the skills and the persistence.” The shortened back legs were key to Ibrahim’s sensational conclusion: Spinosaurus was the first and only dinosaur ever found adapted to a predominantly aquatic environment.

But some criticisms of Ibrahim’s work were more substantive. Several paleontologists took issue with his team’s reconstruction of the dinosaur, which combined the new partial skeleton with earlier fragmentary finds of specimens that differed in size, as well as data from Stromer’s surviving notes. Chief among the criticisms were the animal’s hindlimbs, significantly smaller compared with other large predatory dinosaurs, as well as other researchers’ theoretical Spinosaurus models.

The shortened back legs were key to Ibrahim’s sensational conclusion: Spinosaurus was the first and only dinosaur ever found adapted to a predominantly aquatic environment. In their 2014 Science paper, Ibrahim and colleagues described a predator at home in the water. Its hindlimbs, they argued, had evolved for efficient, powerful swimming.

Peers also charged that Ibrahim had been less than forthcoming about the provenance of the fossils, an accusation he has denied. It’s a common complaint regarding Moroccan finds, many of which are unearthed by locals, cleaned up and sold to paleontologists in shops with no associated material, or geological context, to place and date the animal.

What’s in a name? Still others were incensed that Ibrahim and colleagues defined the animal as the base example of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, Stromer’s lost dinosaur. When researchers first describe a species, living or extinct, they designate a holotype against which all future finds will be compared. For a century, the Spinosaurusholotype was Stromer’s S. aegyptiacus. In their 2014 paper, however, Ibrahim’s team described their dinosaur as the neotype — essentially a new holotype — replacing Stromer’s lost dinosaur as the standard-bearer of the species.

How a fossil is defined may seem like splitting hairs to anyone outside the field, but designating the Moroccan fossil as the new base example, or neotype, means all future Spinosaurus specimens will be compared to it, rather than to Stromer’s find. The neotype designation particularly rankles some critics because Ibrahim’s Spinosaurus, from Morocco’s Kem Kem formation, was found nearly 2,000 miles from Stromer’s Egyptian specimen.

Intensely passionate about his work, Ibrahim is also conscious of crafting a media image of an adventurer, complete with Indiana Jones hat, on the cusp of his next great discovery.Nanni Fontana

“The Kem Kem is 3,200 kilometers from Egypt, which is not a problem if you have great fauna overlap. But there are a lot of dinosaurs from Egypt that we are not finding in Morocco,” says Serjoscha Evers, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University who has studied Sigilmassasaurus, a relative of Spinosaurus.

While much of the discontent over Ibrahim’s find played out on researchers’ personal blogs and at academic conferences, last October Evers and his colleagues presented many of the criticisms in a 100-page paper published in the online journal PeerJ. They argued that the specimen Ibrahim claimed to be the S. aegyptiacus neotype could have been cobbled together from animals of different ages and different species, none of them S. aegyptiacus.

Ibrahim bristles at mention of the PeerJ paper.

“In terms of picking a fight, they’ve already picked it,” he says. “Serjoscha [Evers] has never looked at the original material, or at the geological context. He has never contacted me to ask questions I could have easily answered. I think it’s always good and healthy when people suggest different hypotheses, but this was 

Ibrahim also claims that his critics are guilty of some of the charges they’ve laid at his feet, including describing species based on commercially acquired Moroccan fossils without solid evidence about where they were found in terms of geographic location and layer of rock. This geological context is key to establishing an accurate age. “Spinosaurus is an incredibly sexy dinosaur — no one would get this worked up about a snail or a mollusk”

“We apply really high standards, especially about geological context, for papers from North America, but for some reason, we drop those standards for fossils from Morocco and to some extent China,” Ibrahim says. “That creates problems with the science.”

Ibrahim cites variation among fossils of T. rex, as well as its wide geographic distribution — the iconic dinosaur has been found in both Texas and Canada, for example — when dismissing his critics’ argument that a single spinosaurid species was unlikely to have lived in both Morocco and Egypt during the middle of the Cretaceous period. “Spinosaurus is an incredibly sexy dinosaur — no one would get this worked up about a snail or a mollusk,” he says. “I could have named it something new — that might have gotten even more attention. But since the holotype was destroyed, it seemed appropriate to make this the new reference type.”

Academic dust-ups over theories and conclusions are as old as scientific research itself, but, hearing the passion in Ibrahim’s voice as it cracks when he talks about Spinosaurus, you can sense there is a deeper issue for him here.

Inspired by Tragedy In the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum, a cavernous, climate-controlled archive houses row upon row of fossils, bones, hides and coiled snakes preserved in jars. The Field’s tidy but voluminous off-display reptile collection is a treasure-trove for comparative anatomists. On an August morning, Ibrahim has made a pilgrimage from his office, a short drive away at the University of Chicago — he left his position there last fall to focus on speaking engagements.

Ibrahim, whose boyish good looks make him seem even younger than he is, stands with a cloth tape measure in one hand and a century-old crocodile skull in the other. He checks a few points along its upper and lower jaws, noting the measurements. He places the skull back in its box, returns it to a shelf and takes another skull down for study.

The measurements will be part of a data set he’s developing that may help us understand how fast and how large dinosaurs like Spinosaurus grew. His hands and eyes are occupied by the task, but his mind is traveling thousands of miles and scores of decades away, back to the tragic life of his inspiration, German paleontologist Ernst Stromer.

Spinosaurus bones found by Ernst Stromer and subsequently destroyed in WWII. Courtesy Nizar Ibrahim

Stromer was not a supporter of the Nazi Party, and his family and fossils paid dearly for it. Two sons were sent to the front lines during World War II; one died in combat, and the other was held captive by the Soviets for years. His third son was also killed during the war. In 1944, Stromer’s pleas to move his fossils to safety were ignored, and the bones were reduced to dust in a British bombing campaign. These personal and professional losses took a heavy emotional toll on Stromer. His name and his life’s work faded into obscurity.

Decades later, as a child growing up in Germany in the 1980s, Ibrahim came across an offhand mention of Stromer and the lost Spinosaurus bones. Something clicked, and he thirsted to learn more. Over the years, long before he made his own Spinosaurus find, Ibrahim pieced together Stromer’s past, even visiting the family’s ancestral home in Bavaria and befriending the paleontologist’s granddaughter, who shared personal photos and memorabilia.

Ibrahim chose to work in the Sahara, hoping to find another Spinosaurus. Regional instabilities and other logistical challenges made it impossible to follow exactly in Stromer’s footsteps in the Egyptian Sahara, but Ibrahim suspected that rocks from the same period also existed in Morocco, a country familiar from childhood vacations to visit relatives. He also knew that, 100 million years ago, the whole of what is now North African desert was a series of massive river systems. Stromer found Spinosaurus in the eastern Sahara, but perhaps the massive dinosaur could also be found to the west, in Morocco.

“As a scientist, usually you’re really far removed from the scientists who came before you. They’re just names on a publication,” Ibrahim says. “The work I was doing in Morocco, which was the same work Stromer had been doing in Egypt, became about more than ‘here are some dinosaur bones.’ It was about restoring his legacy.”

Dino-Mo Even before he knew the name Ernst Stromer, Ibrahim’s zeal for dinosaurs — and his attitude, equal parts determination and confidence — were firmly in place. He was just 6 when he scrawled “Dr. Nizar Ibrahim” on one of his first books about the extinct animals.

For Ibrahim, born and raised in West Berlin, loving dinosaurs was just an extension of his lifelong love for animals, encouraged by his veterinarian mother. The distinction between dinosaurs and living animals is artificial, he says: Ibrahim even prefers the term paleozoologist to paleontologist.

British paleobiologist Dave Martill (right) and Ibrahim enjoy some shade during an expedition to the Kem Kem, where the Sahara’s relentless daytime heat, cold nights and remoteness make fieldwork challenging.

Robert Loveridge

He studied zoology and comparative anatomy, and even wildlife conservation, before focusing on vertebrate paleontology. While still a student in Berlin, he volunteered at the Museum für Naturkunde, where University of Leicester paleontologist David Unwin, then a curator at the museum, was overseeing renovation of the dinosaur exhibits.

“He was a dynamo that whizzed around with lots of ideas. I liked his enthusiasm,” says Unwin. “When we got going with [renovating] the dinosaur hall, he was invaluable. Maybe because he wasn’t paid, he didn’t feel constrained. He could come up with ideas that were outside the box, dynamic, not hostage to the past.”

Thinking unconventionally is a hallmark of Ibrahim’s career. After studying at the University of Bristol, he skipped applying for an existing Ph.D. program and instead designed his own. “I wrote my own because [researchers] are not interested in having you publish your dream project. They are more interested in you doing the work to help them publish their dream project,” Ibrahim says bluntly.

He found his way to University College Dublin, and from there, to a series of expeditions into the Sahara, focusing on Morocco’s southeastern corner, near the border with Algeria. There, the Kem Kem rock formation rises more than 2,000 feet in places, zigzagging across the desert landscape for 150 miles. “Of course, as a little human, without claws or anything, you wouldn’t have lived very long."

Fossils found in the Kem Kem have been unusually large: not just Spinosaurus, but also Carcharodontosaurus, a land-based predator nearly as big; crocodilian monsters as long as a school bus; and fish the size of a car. So far there’s scant evidence of smaller animals or herbivores. Paleontologists disagree on whether that means the mid-Cretaceous Kem Kem was a unique ecosystem full of big carnivores or if it’s just a quirk in the fossil record.

“Did the Kem Kem have no small turtles or birds? We don’t know,” says Gareth Dyke, a paleontologist now at Hungary’s University of Debrecen who worked with Ibrahim in Dublin. “The bones are so fragile and fragmentary, they’re not getting preserved. Environmentally speaking, they’d be destroyed in those big river systems.”

Ibrahim, however, contends that the Kem Kem was an ecosystem of outsized meat-eaters. “We’re dealing with an ecosystem that doesn’t have a modern equivalent,” Ibrahim says. He adds with a mischievous smile, “Of course, as a little human, without claws or anything, you wouldn’t have lived very long.”

Conducting fieldwork in the Kem Kem today remains challenging, thanks to extreme temperatures, few comforts and the perils of working in an empty, somewhat lawless land. On one expedition, Ibrahim and his colleagues had to abort plans to dig at a location after learning it was the site of a weapons cache. Yet Ibrahim still finds the Sahara alluring.

The plateaus and escarpments of Morocco’s Kem Kem dwarf modern-day explorers in search of fossils. Robert Loveridg

“One time I found a chunk of sandstone that had little pebbles and a (dinosaur) tooth, all stuck in the direction of flow. Everything was perfect,” Ibrahim says. “It was a moment frozen in time. A hundred million years ago, this was the riverbed. It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, I understand, it’s 100 million years old,’ but it was the first time I really understood it, deep down. I felt this overwhelming sense of deep time.”

He blinks, his mind suddenly returning to the present. He smiles. “Those are the moments that won’t make it into books on paleontology, but they’re important to me.”

Digging Deeper Ibrahim is now waiting to see his extensive overview of the Kem Kem published, as well as a detailed monograph on Spinosaurus and another study laying out the geological context of the fossils. He believes the papers will put to rest disagreements over the dinosaur and his interpretation of it.>

In addition to Spinosaurus, Morocco has yielded other important finds for Ibrahim, including fragments of the pterosaur Alanqa saharica, one of the largest flying reptiles ever discovered. His growing reputation is building the groundwork for his biggest dream: improving scientific study not only in Morocco, but throughout northern Africa and, eventually, the entire continent.

It’s a two-pronged ambition. Ibrahim wants colleagues in the international research community to hold fieldwork in Morocco, and more generally Africa, to the same high standards as elsewhere, insisting on geological context in published papers and not supporting the commercial trade of undocumented fossils. He also wants more inclusion of scientists from the continent: While most American- and European-led expeditions include team members from the host country, for example, few include researchers from elsewhere in Africa.

But perhaps the goal closest to Ibrahim’s heart is promoting scientific literacy. This summer he plans to publish a comprehensive e-book in Arabic on Morocco’s biodiversity. He’s also putting together paleontology exhibits in the Moroccan cities of Casablanca and Rabat — he hopes they’ll be stepping stones to a national museum of paleontology.

Ibrahim is open about cultivating a media-friendly image as part of his bigger strategy. “The media exposure is a tool, not only to raise awareness in the U.S. about Morocco but also for all the Moroccan people,” Ibrahim says. “When people in Morocco saw the Spinosaurus story on CNN, they realized it was important. That’s a change.”

In October in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, Ibrahim delivered the closing address at the annual African Philanthropy Forum, which focused on issues such as improving access to basic needs and fostering political stability. Among the big players in humanitarian aid and economic development, Ibrahim was the only paleontologist. He recalls that people weren’t sure why he was there until he laid out his ideas about preserving and protecting the continent’s scientific heritage, which includes encouraging more young people to pursue a career in research.

“You need a research university, you need people doing research, not just becoming doctors and lawyers and pharmacists,” Ibrahim says. “It’s important to address fundamental issues — health, education — but Africa needs new generations of explorers and scientists and people willing to push boundaries.”

When Ibrahim discusses the need to encourage greater interest in science in Africa, his blue eyes brighten with the same determined light as when he talks about Spinosaurus, or honoring Stromer’s legacy. You can see the wheels turning, the big plans being laid, the obsession taking hold.

“Nizar is now ‘the guy who made the effort to find out what Spinosaurus was’ — he didn’t discover it, but he found it again and determined it was aquatic,” says Martill. “But he’s going to be remembered as ‘the guy who founded the first national museum of paleontology in Morocco.’ It’s a dream he has, and he’s already made one dream come true.”

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