Dinosaurs Lost and Found, continued

Left: Excavating “like fiends” in between sandstorms and bouts of food poisoning, field workers amassed five and a half tons of bones for shipment back to Philadelphia. Below: Matt Lamanna with Paralititan humerus after excavation.

    The team arrived in Egypt on January 11, 2000. After a few days in Cairo, they drove to Bawiti, the largest town in the oasis, and set up their headquarters at the El Beshmo Lodge. “Logistically, it was one of the cushiest situations I’ve ever been in,” says Peter Dodson. While Bawiti was “a very primitive lifestyle, with almost nothing to please the eye,” the El Beshmo was “very, very attractive.”
Jen Smith also retains fond memories of the place. “We had relatively hot showers almost every day, toilets that flushed, and rooms with tile floors. And somebody cooked us food. For fieldwork in a third-world country [that] is really good. Normally we work based out of a mudbrick hut with a dirt floor and a pit toilet and there’s no running water. That’s what I’m used to.”
But the work environment itself was far from cushy. For the first few weeks, “we froze our butts off,” Josh Smith says. Daytime temperatures ranged in the high 30s-low 40s with “serious” winds, before rising to 85-90 degrees by the end of the season. And then there were the sandstorms—three of them in the space of two weeks.
“The desert’s a pretty unforgiving place. And we took some people that didn’t have a lot of field experience along with us. It was sort of a baptism by fire. The film crew had a really rough time with it,” Josh says. Then one night, “right after one of the sandstorms, right before one of the other ones,” everyone got food poisoning. “So we had people down from FP and sand-related problems and then morale went right through the floor. And this is before we really found anything.”
“As we explored, we actually found sites that we believe to be some of Stromer’s original sites,” says Lamanna. “We found what are very obviously excavation pits that had been filled in with sand blown in by the wind, in some cases burlap” which, soaked in plaster, was wrapped around fossils for protection during transport, “and even in one case a little scrap of newsprint with German writing on it.”
But not much in the way of fossils. For a time, it seemed that the charmed project had run out of luck.
“In the beginning, everyone was just very, very excited, and what we found quickly was that bones on the surface didn’t always mean that there’s a whole skeleton waiting to be found,” Jen Smith says. In most climates, dinosaur fossils are found enclosed in soft sediments. In a desert environment, though, the wind blows the soft sediment away, but can’t move the bones, so they collect on the surface. A bone may have come out of a level that was 10 feet above the present surface “and everything else is gone,” she says. “You see these bones on the surface and go, ‘That’s great,’ and then you dig and there’s nothing. For the first week or so, until we realized that this was the pattern and not the exception, people would be calling in on the walkie-talkies, ‘Hey, we found something!’ and everybody would rush over and start digging and there would be nothing.”
It wasn’t until January 27 that the team returned to the first site—where Josh, hanging from the landcruiser, had seen the dinosaur bone—and made the project’s biggest single discovery to date. “We didn’t go back [sooner] because it was one of the least impressive sites we found just to look at,” Josh explains. “All these other places had bones littering the ground. We thought they’d be much more productive sites, and they turned out to be crap.”
While the bones on the surface were all that had been left at other sites, when they started to dig this time they found much more, including one entire humerus (upper arm bone) that measured 67 inches and part of another. By the end of the season, they had excavated about a quarter of the skeleton of what appeared to be a new—and very large—genus of dinosaur.
With this discovery, “We hit paydirt along the likes of which most people go their entire careers without,” Josh says, a mix of excitement and incredulity still in his voice months later. “The probability of this actually happening was almost nothing. I still can’t believe it. The number of coincidences that lined up to allow me to find this skeleton are almost enough to make me believe in a higher power. It’s astonishing.”
Coincidentally (there’s that word again), on the same day that the team returned to the sauropod site and found the skeleton, Matt Lamanna made the season’s other major find. About a half-mile from the sauropod site, Matt was leading two other field workers on a hike through the hills. He recalls hearing Josh’s voice crackle over the walkie-talkie, calling the teams back, and then noticing “patches of sediment that looked like dinosaur skin, but it wasn’t, and then I looked down and I saw tons of fossilized bone everywhere. There were pieces of turtle shell, fish jaws, parts of dinosaurs. And all the stuff was very well-preserved. It was the first occasion that we had collected well-preserved stuff from Bahariya.” Such non-dinosaur material is invaluable in determining the environment in which dinosaurs lived and the other animals and plants they shared it with, says Lamanna, who named the area Jon’s Birthday Site, in honor of his brother, born on January 27.
While the fossil record of North America was fleshed out in an explosion of excavation in the late-1800s—fueled in large part by the “bone wars” between rival paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope—the record of other continents is “pretty poor,” by comparison, Lamanna adds. “There are entire chunks of millions and millions of years that we have absolutely no evidence of what the fauna or flora were like.” Dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period in Africa—the time represented by the Bahariya Formation—“are almost totally unknown.”

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