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Dinosaurs Lost and Found, continued



Above, left: Plaster “jackets” encasing the fossils—some weighing 800 lbs—were lifted using a “rickety tripod held together by a couple of rusty bolts” for transport at the end of the field season. Above, right: Josh Smith and Matt Lamanna brush debris from a fossil. Left: the film crew moves in for a close-up.

The big discoveries came just in time. The film crew was scheduled to leave soon, for one thing, and at the halfway point in the field season, “you’re getting around the time when, if you find a large animal, you’re not going to be able to get the whole thing out,” says Lamanna.
   
Ground conditions in the oasis varied, but the large sauropod was “in some clay that was pretty tough,” Jen Smith recalls. Field workers used spikes and hammers to chisel away at the ground, “splitting open blocks. And the trick is to split open the block but not the bone.” She at least had had some previous field experience, but by the end “they needed every hand they could get. It was basically, ‘If you’re not going to break more than you find, help out.’”
   
When a bone is uncovered, field workers clean it and apply a stabilizing chemical to the rock, then wrap the specimen with aluminum foil. A plaster cast is then created to protect it during transport. Some of these “jackets” weighed as much as 800 pounds, which created a problem when it was time to load them up at the end of the field season.
   
A hoped-for forklift failed to materialize on the final day. “What we ended up doing was we got a flatbed truck to drive out to the quarry, [and] our Egyptian colleagues managed to locate this rickety tripod held together by a couple of rusty bolts,” Jen says. “We’re trying to lift these 800-pound things, and everybody knows the best way to do it, and there’s not the greatest communication because there’s different languages spoken, and the sun had gone down, the moon was coming up.” They had to be on the road by three in the morning to make a nine a.m. meeting with the director of the Geological Survey the next day. “It was a madhouse, but it got done and that’s what matters.”

Relations between the field workers and the film crew were friendly—for the most part. “We did make extensive use of the landcruisers in throwing rotten food at each other, driving back and forth between the sites,” says Josh. “We had epic fruiting battles, it was fantastic.” In one 20-minute skirmish, “we’re doing like 60 mph across this sandy road and then all of a sudden we hit this field of boulders! We almost tore the axle out of the thing. I managed to get the shot off, and then we ran for home. But those are how our days went, it was a crazy time.”
   
Besides the field work in Egypt, additional filming for the documentary took place on Penn’s campus and at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where the bones were stored and analyzed, as well as in Munich and the Florida Everglades. The latter trip was made because, based on the fossil evidence, they believe that the Bahariya Oasis 100 million years ago looked something like the mangrove swamps of the Florida Everglades today.
   
The team was led to the Florida analogue by the fact that lagoonal sediments were found directly overlying marine sandstones. “In a normal coastal environment, as the sea comes up you normally record a shoreline, in terms of a beach, so in the stratigraphic sequence you’ll end up with the marine sands, the beach, and then the lagoonal deposits and then the terrestrial deposits on top of that,” says Smith. “In many places in the oasis we’ve got these lagoonal deposits directly comformable with these marine sands.” The usual answer would be that there is a time gap—the beach has eroded away, leaving lagoonal deposits much younger than the marine sands—but in Bahariya, “We’ve got roots growing from the lagoonal muds into the marine sands,” which only happens in mangrove swamps.
   
Early last summer, Josh and Matt also accompanied the film crew to Munich to fill in Stromer’s history for the documentary and to search for any additional evidence that might help in future excavation in Bahariya. “It was really eerie in many ways to open up the drawers of the collections of the museum and look at the only remaining parts of the collection that weren’t blown up,” says Josh. “We were looking through Stromer’s diaries to try and find out what he was thinking—you know, are there localities that he hasn’t published on that are in his diaries?”
   
So far, the diaries haven’t turned up any additional clues, but researchers for MPH did make another significant discovery—more than 100 glass-plate negatives of Stromer’s specimens. “These were things the scientific community didn’t even know existed,” says Scott Winters. “We were able to very directly contribute to the body of scientific knowledge by bringing these back to light.”
   
One of the photos even showed the partial skeleton of Spinosaurus, mounted in a glass case in the museum. “To my knowledge, nobody realized that Spinosaurus had actually been mounted, and it’s weird to be sitting there looking at it, and it’s totally gone,” says Josh.
   
MPH’s researchers also uncovered details of Stromer’s life—including the good news that he was not a Nazi sympathizer. “We were a little bit afraid that we were doing this documentary on the work of this ardent Nazi, and we didn’t really think that was a noble thing to do,” says Matt Lamanna. “But apparently he was just the opposite—which made us all breathe a sigh of relief.”

In his cluttered office in the veterinary school, Peter Dodson reflects on the “very fruitful relationship” that exists between Josh Smith and Matt Lamanna. “Between the two of them they are really great dreamers,” he says. “They sit down and think about the ideal world and what they would do in that ideal world, and one of the things they would do is lead a project to an exotic place and really make their mark. It was just a wonderful coincidence of events that the invitation to go [to Egypt] and do geology coincided with the place that rated so high on the wish list.”
   
Dodson, whose works include many articles and the books The Horned Dinosaurs: A Natural History and (as editor) Dinosauria, says his own interests in
paleontology, which lean toward small fossils—what he calls the “supporting cast of characters”—“nicely complement the interests and strengths of Matt and Josh, and I’m always up to visiting a new terrain and so was very, very happy to go” on the expedition.

   
In his book The Riddle of the Dinosaur, John Noble Wilford notes that paleontologists have mostly managed to parlay a childhood fascination with dinosaurs into a professional career. Penn’s dinosaur hunters are no exception.
   
“I’m one of the arrested 12-year-olds,” Josh admits cheerfully. “I had an uncle who is a physicist, and about the time I was six he saw this curiosity or something, and he decided to start working me towards the ways of science. So the telescopes started, the microscopes, the chemistry sets—and the first book on dinosaurs. It was over.” Matt Lamanna remembers being interested in dinosaurs—and knowing about Ernst Stromer—since “my very early childhood, maybe single digits.”
   
Dodson informed his parents he wanted to be a paleontologist when he was 11 (getting a better response than in your average household, as his father was a professor of biology at Penn), though an even earlier formative experience came when he was taken to see Disney’s Fantasia by his mother at six years old. “This wonderful scene [of the dinosaurs’ extinction] made a great impression on me, of course.”
   
Asked to speculate about the widespread interest in dinosaurs, especially among the young, he cites use of them to address ideas of extinction, along with an attraction to dinosaurs’ immense size for small children, not to mention the desire to show off before—and show up—one’s parents by possessing specialized knowledge that they don’t share.
   
But the study of dinosaurs has much to tell all of us, he emphasizes, “about the geology of the time, the geography of the time, very much about the course of evolution.” Pointing to the present-day concerns over the loss of biodiversity, the study of dinosaurs “teaches us a great deal about the dynamics of biodiversity, changes in biodiversity in time and the effects of connections and separations among continents—the effect of environmental changes that are documented in the fossil record,” he adds. “It gives us a great sense of perspective; it gives us a knowledge base to draw on; and it gives us a sense of humility in that we’re so concerned about the events of the last five-10-15-20 years, and here we see the events of millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions of years—and perhaps realize that our petty little time scales are really quite ephemeral and insignificant.”

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