German/Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, a postdoctoral scholar in vertebrate anatomy and paleontology at the University of Chicago and 2014 National Geographic emerging explorer, scours the deserts of North Africa for clues to life in the Cretaceous period, when the area was a large river system teeming with a profusion of diverse life. In addition to unearthing many huge dinosaur bones, he has discovered fossil footprints and a new species of flying reptile with an 18-foot wingspan that lived 95 million years ago.
Ibrahim has been obsessed with one of the great mysteries in paleontology—the giant predator, Spinosaurus. In a tale for the ages, Ibrahim managed to find “a needle in a desert,” as he puts it. Ibrahim’s remarkable story and the findings of an international team of scientists were just published in the journal Science and as a cover story for National Geographic magazine. What has been unveiled appears to be the first truly semiaquatic dinosaur, Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. New fossils of the massive Cretaceous-era predator reveal it adapted to life in the water some 95 million years ago, providing the most compelling evidence to date of a dinosaur able to live and hunt in an aquatic environment. The fossils also indicate that Spinosaurus was the largest known predatory dinosaur to roam the Earth, measuring more than nine feet longer than the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus rex specimen. According to Ibrahim, “Working on this animal was like studying an alien from outer space; it’s unlike any other dinosaur I have ever seen.”
In 2014 Ibrahim was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and in 2015, he was named a TED fellow, the first paleontologist in the history of the program. His upcoming paper describing the ecosystem of what is now Morocco’s Sahara Desert in the mid-Cretaceous period promises to be a milestone, providing the most detailed account of the diversity, paleoecology, and geologic context of fossil vertebrates from North Africa.
It was the largest predatory dinosaur, with spike-shaped teeth and a body over 50 feet long. “It” wasSpinosaurus, and although it was a giant among dinosaurs, its fossils eluded scientists for decades. Almost as amazing as Spinosaurus itself is the story of how this monster was rediscovered a century after its bones were first unearthed and later bombed into oblivion in the chaos of WWII.