Dinosaurs Lost and Found


BY JOHN PRENDERGAST

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January 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 something—to the untrained eye a charred log—will 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.

From 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

Jennifer Smith is a doctoral candidate in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science (EES). Her dissertation research involves studying the geology of Egypt’s 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 me—male, 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 bodyguard—as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he also served in the army—Josh 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 paleontology—dinosaurs—and 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 Smith’s 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 discoveries—the 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 Stromer’s fossils, were destroyed on April 24, 1944, when Royal Air Force bombs set fire to the Munich museum in which they were housed.




 

 
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