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Dinosaurs Lost and Found, continued


P
enn’s dinosaur hunters followed in the footsteps of Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, who discovered four species of dinosaurs in excavations 1911-1914. The most famous was Spinosaurus, whose partial skeleton is shown mounted in a newly discovered photo (left). It and all of Stromer's specimens were destroyed in World War II.

   “Every new dinosaur paleontologist knows the story of Stromer’s ‘lost’ dinosaurs inside and out. It’s become a legend,” says Josh, who names Spinosaurus as his favorite dinosaur when he was growing up, “just because it got ignored.”
   Stromer made his first visit to the Bahariya Oasis in 1911, and in three seasons of excavating discovered 40-50 genera of plant and animal organisms, including “seven or eight dinosaur genera and a host of other taxa—turtles, crocodiles, more than 20 genera of fish,” Smith says. The fossils Stromer excavated were from a rock unit called the Bahariya Formation that was about 100 million years old, in the Cretaceous era (144-65 million years ago). That was “about the time the dinosaurs were really starting to get their steam going,” Smith explains, as rising sea levels turned what had been a single land mass into isolated continents, leading to more divergent evolutionary paths in different parts of the world.
   Separated from his collecting possibilities by the coming of the first world war, Stromer concentrated on describing the material he had managed to bring out of Egypt. With the exception of some small specimens that curators had surreptitiously removed for safekeeping before the bombs fell, those descriptions were thought to be all that remained of Stromer’s discoveries. “For whatever reason, nobody really went back to Egypt” to search for dinosaurs after World War II, says Smith. This despite the fact that “these critters were just bizarrely spectacular animals—not only did [Stromer] find lots of animals but they were all weird.”
   Besides Spinosaurus, Stromer’s other finds include two more large carnivores: Carcharodontosaurus, an animal with a skull six-feet long, equipped with very powerful blade-like teeth (carcharodon is the name of a giant shark); and Bahariasaurus, about which much less is known, but which has a femur the size of T. rex. In addition to these predators, Stromer also discovered a smaller plant-eating dinosaur, or sauropod, that he named Aegyptosaurus.
   The Bahariya Oasis had also scored exceptionally high—five out of five—on a scale devised by another EES graduate student, Matthew Lamanna, to analyze where major new dinosaur discoveries could potentially be made. Bahariya “was the only place I could think of where we knew one could produce various spectacular dinosaurs—but that no longer existed, having been blown up in World War II,” he says. “It was a pipe dream.”
   The chance to spend some time searching for Stromer’s lost dinosaurs—after some negotiating, Jen and Josh settled on three days—provided an acceptable rationale for Josh to make the trip, but no one had very high expectations. “I was kind of, not blowing that aspect off, but [my attitude] was, ‘Well, this will justify him going,” recalls Jen. “And we went out there and in a matter of hours there were bones all over the place. It was absolutely amazing.”
   While Stromer had left no maps or known photographs of his sites, he had made notes about the places he excavated. “We took the descriptions of his landforms, translated them and then drove around in the desert looking for stuff that matched,” says Josh. For a variety of reasons—not least that 85 years had passed—this method “was probably the dumbest way we could have gone about it,” but “we got really lucky.” About 45 minutes into the drive on the first morning, “I’m hanging my head out of the car window at 30 miles an hour and I see a bone” about 10 inches in diameter and a foot long. A few more bones lay on the surface nearby. From their size and the fact that they were not hollow, Josh judged that the bones probably belonged to a large sauropod—“one of the long-necked, long-tailed guys.” By the end of the day, they had found 20 accumulations of bones. “It was a great day,” Josh recalls. “The bone density was phenomenal.”

The results of the initial reconnaissance clearly warranted a full-scale expedition to continue the search for Stromer’s original sites and to follow up on Josh’s own discoveries. But how to pay for it?
   
That question started to get answered one night back in Philadelphia, when Smith met R. Scott Winters Gr’01, then a Ph.D. candidate in biology, for drinks at the New Deck Tavern and began talking about his trip to Egypt. “Josh and I had been old friends and I’ve known Peter [Dodson] for years and have an interest in paleontology,” Winters says.
   
But Winters, who is not your ordinary graduate student, had a more-than- curious interest in Smith’s story. While his research interests are “primarily in theoretical biology,” using techniques from computer science and mathematics to look at computationally intensive problems in ecology, he also has a longtime involvement in the exploration community, writing articles and editing an online newsletter for the Explorers Club, an international organization founded in 1904 to promote field research and scientific exploration.
   
More to the point, Winters is partner in a film production company that specializes in science- and expedition-based documentaries, and he thought Josh’s story had definite possibilities. The fact that Josh had made such major finds in just three days was “an excellent story in and of itself.” Add the compelling Stromer “back-story”—“You know, that [Josh] possibly had gone back to the same site”—and selling the package as a documentary was practically a “slam-dunk,” he says. “I asked Josh if I could get a little bit more involved in the project and could possibly get him funding, and he certainly was amenable to that. Quite literally, after I left the New Deck I pulled out my cell phone and made a couple of calls.”
   
Within a few weeks, Winters was able to negotiate a deal whereby another company, Los Angeles-based, MPH Entertainment, would provide $50,000 to fund the project’s first field season in January-February 2000 in return for the rights to make a documentary about it in association with Winters’ company, Last Word Productions. This spring, the film rights were sold to Cosmos Studios. The two-hour documentary will premiere on the A&E Network in late 2001 or early 2002, with the title The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt. In addition, it will be shown at the Jackson Hole Film Festival in September.
   
With the funding from MPH in hand, says Josh, “We got 21 people together, and we trucked them across the pond and dumped them in the middle of the desert for six weeks, and we excavated like fiends.”
   
With Josh as leader, Peter Dodson, Matt Lamanna, Jennifer Smith, and Kenneth Lacovera, a sedimentologist from Drexel University, created the Bahariya Dinosaur Project (BDP). They formed the core of the field-expedition team, which also included Jason Poole, chief fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and several volunteers. The film crew made up the rest of the 21-person total, including MPH Entertainment partner and documentary-director Jim Milio, a veteran of the syndicated television series Rescue 911 and other projects, and Vladimir Perlovich, a television and film producer who is Winters’ partner in Last Word.
   
With the help of Bob Giegengack’s network of contacts made during three decades of working as a geologist in Egypt, the BDP formed a partnership with the Cairo Geological Museum and the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority giving them exclusive rights to excavate in the Bahariya Oasis for five years. In an unusually liberal provision of the agreement, half of the fossils excavated will come to Philadelphia and the other half stay in Cairo. (By contrast, in a dinosaur project in Argentina in which Penn is a partner, the fossils cannot leave the country even to be studied.)

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Map showing location of the Bahariya Oasis and the site of the Paralititan discovery (below) and Gebel el Dist, the most prominent feature on the nearby landscape (above).
 

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