1999. A landcruiser
drives across the Egyptian desert, moving at about 30 miles per
hour. Leaning out the passenger window, a young man scans the terrain,
periodically checking it against a written description of the area
made three-quarters of a century earlier. Suddenly, he spots something
on the ground and shouts, Stop here!
The somethingto the untrained eye a charred logwill turn out to
be part of the fossilized skeleton of a new species of dinosaur
that was among the largest creatures ever to walk the planet. Finding
it was only the most outrageous stroke of fortune in a project that
began with a coincidence: that two of the three people in that jeep
shared the name Smith.
left: Jennifer Smith, Matthew Lamanna, Joshua Smith, and Dr.
Peter Dodson with the 67 inch humerus of Paralititan stromeri,
a new species of dinosaur discovered in Egypt. Photo
by Addison Geary
Smith is a doctoral candidate in Penns Department of Earth and
Environmental Science (EES). Her dissertation research involves
studying the geology of Egypts Bahariya Oasis, located in the Western
Sahara about 180-190 miles from Cairo, for evidence of climate change
and hominid and human habitation during periods when the Sahara
cycled from a desert to a savanna environment.
She made her first visit to the oasis in 1998, accompanied by her
dissertation advisor, Dr. Robert Giegengack, professor and department
chair of EES [The World According to Gieg, January/February 2000].
But the following year, Giegengack was not available to stay with
her for the entire five weeks planned, which posed a problem for
a female researcher in a Muslim country. The idea was I needed
a companion to stay with memale, obviously, Smith recalls, good-humoredly.
It would look OK that I was going to be out in the desert because
some big, strong man would be taking care of me.
Enter fellow EES doctoral student Joshua Smith. Besides possessing
the requisite size and strength for a bodyguardas an undergraduate
at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he also served in
the armyJosh was a trained sedimentologist, which meant he could
be useful to Jennifer as an assistant in her research as well. The
similarity in their names was an added bonus, allowing Josh to pass
as brother or husband. (In reality, he is her fiancÈ.) And he had
always wanted to visit Egypt
There was only one holdup. Josh
Smith is a student of vertebrate paleontologydinosaursand he needed
to secure the cooperation of his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Peter
Dodson, professor of anatomy in the veterinary school, who also
has a partial appointment to EES. Smith calls Dodson one of the
top five dinosaur people in the country, and adds that he has
been very good about supporting my crazy ideas and putting me on
a plane to pursue them. Even so, Dodson would not look kindly on
Josh spending five weeks away from his own work just to be helpful.
Some scientific justification for the trip was needed.
As luck would have it, the route
to Jen Smiths research site passed through an area where, in the
early part of the 20th century, a German paleontologist associated
with the University of Munich named Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach
had made several discoveriesthe best known of which was Spinosaurus,
a Tyrannosaurus rex-sized carnivore, or theropod, with a
distinctive five-foot sail on its back. That specimen, and most
of the rest of Stromers fossils, were destroyed on April 24, 1944,
when Royal Air Force bombs set fire to the Munich museum in which
they were housed.