March 3rd

2013 – Nizar Ibrahim Finds The Nomad

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim was at his lowest point on this day in dinosaurs in 2013. He was sitting outside a cafe in the Moroccan city of Erfoud after spending days searching for a man he had met several years earlier–a man who had shown him fossils that he later realized belonged to Spinosaurus, the most elusive Mesozoic super-predator.

Ibrahim sees the nomad / National Geographic
Ibrahim sees the nomad / National Geographic

In the years since their last meeting, Ibrahim was working furiously on a giant doctoral thesis about the Sahara as it was 100 million years ago. He described a River of Giants, with enormous predatory dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and sharks. But Spinosaurus was an enigma. The only significant skeletal sections of the animal had been bombed in World War II and were gone forever. Generations of scientists had combed the Sahara searching for another near-complete specimen but none had ever turned up.

Then Ibrahim received a call from Italian colleagues. The most complete specimen of Spinosaurus showed up in Milan. A fossil dealer had smuggled it out of Morocco. When Ibrahim visited the skeleton, he recognized the color of the bones and the sediment that encased them. He had seen fragments of the same skeleton–the bones that the nomad showed him in Erfoud. Ibrahim decided to return to Erfoud, relocate the mystery man, convince him to reveal the location of his discovery (something that had never been done), and bring Spinosaurus back to science.

On this day, four years ago Ibrahim did what seemed impossible. It’s best to let him tell the story:

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