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TEDYouth 2014

Nizar Ibrahim: How we unearthed the Spinosaurus

November 15, 2014

A 50-foot-long carnivore who hunted its prey in rivers 97 million years ago, the Spinosaurus is a "dragon from deep time." Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim and his crew found new fossils, hidden in cliffs of the Moroccan Sahara desert, that are helping us learn more about the first swimming dinosaur -- who might also be the largest carnivorous dinosaur of all.

Nizar Ibrahim - Paleontologist
Nizar Ibrahim scours Northern Africa for clues to what things were like there in the Cretaceous period. A 2015 TED Fellow, he has spearheaded the recent search for the semi-aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
These dragons from deep time
are incredible creatures.
00:12
They're bizzarre,
00:17
they're beautiful,
00:18
and there's very little
we know about them.
00:20
These thoughts were going
through my head
00:23
when I looked at the pages of
my first dinosaur book.
00:25
I was about five years old at the time,
00:30
and I decided there and then
00:32
that I would become a paleontologist.
00:34
Paleontology allowed me
to combine my love for animals
00:37
with my desire to travel to
far-flung corners of the world.
00:41
And now, a few years later,
I've led several expeditions
00:45
to the ultimate far-flung corner
on this planet, the Sahara.
00:48
I've worked in the Sahara because
I've been on a quest
00:53
to uncover new remains of
a bizarre, giant predatory dinosaur
00:58
called Spinosaurus.
01:03
A few bones of this animal
have been found
01:06
in the deserts of Egypt
01:09
and were described about 100 years ago
by a German paleontologist.
01:11
Unfortunately, all his Spinosaurus bones
were destroyed in World War II.
01:16
So all we're left with are just
a few drawings and notes.
01:21
From these drawings,
01:25
we know that this creature, which lived
about 100 million years ago,
01:26
was very big,
01:30
it had tall spines on its back,
forming a magnificent sail,
01:31
and it had long, slender jaws,
a bit like a crocodile,
01:35
with conical teeth,
01:41
that may have been used
to catch slippery prey, like fish.
01:43
But that was pretty much
all we knew
01:48
about this animal for the next 100 years.
01:50
My fieldwork took me to the border region
between Morocco and Algeria,
01:58
a place called the Kem Kem.
02:03
It's a difficult place to work in.
02:05
You have to deal with sandstorms
and snakes and scorpions,
02:08
and it's very difficult to find
good fossils there.
02:11
But our hard work paid off.
02:14
We discovered many incredible specimens.
02:17
There's the largest dinosaur bone
02:19
that had ever been found
in this part of the Sahara.
02:21
We found remains of giant
predatory dinosaurs,
02:25
medium-sized predatory dinosaurs,
02:28
and seven or eight different kinds
of crocodile-like hunters.
02:31
These fossils were deposited
in a river system.
02:37
The river system was also home
to a giant, car-sized coelacanth,
02:40
a monster sawfish,
02:44
and the skies over the river system
were filled with pterosaurs,
02:47
flying reptiles.
02:51
It was a pretty dangerous place,
02:53
not the kind of place where you'd want
to travel to if you had a time machine.
02:55
So we're finding all these
incredible fossils of animals
02:59
that lived alongside Spinosaurus,
03:02
but Spinosaurus itself proved
to be very elusive.
03:05
We were just finding bits and pieces
03:08
and I was hoping that we'd find
a partial skeleton at some point.
03:10
Finally, very recently,
03:15
we were able to track down a dig site
03:17
where a local fossil hunter found
several bones of Spinosaurus.
03:20
We returned to the site,
we collected more bones.
03:25
And so after 100 years we finally
had another partial skeleton
03:28
of this bizarre creature.
03:32
And we were able to reconstruct it.
03:34
We now know that
Spinosaurus had a head
03:36
a little bit like a crocodile,
03:37
very different from other
predatory dinosaurs,
03:39
very different from the T. rex.
03:41
But the really interesting information
came from the rest of the skeleton.
03:44
We had long spines,
03:49
the spines forming the big sail.
03:50
We had leg bones, we had skull bones,
03:53
we had paddle-shaped feet, wide feet --
03:55
again, very unusual, no other
dinosaur has feet like this --
03:59
and we think they may have been
used to walk on soft sediment,
04:01
or maybe for paddling in the water.
04:05
We also looked at the fine
microstructure of the bone,
04:07
the inside structure of Spinosaurus bones,
04:11
and it turns out that they're
very dense and compact.
04:13
Again, this is something we see in animals
that spend a lot of time in the water,
04:15
it's useful for buoyancy
control in the water.
04:19
We C.T.-scanned all of our bones
and built a digital Spinosaurus skeleton.
04:23
And when we looked
at the digital skeleton,
04:28
we realized that yes, this was
a dinosaur unlike any other.
04:30
It's bigger than a T. rex,
04:35
and yes, the head has "fish-eating"
written all over it,
04:36
but really the entire skeleton has
"water-loving" written all over it --
04:39
dense bone, paddle-like feet,
and the hind limbs are reduced in size,
04:43
and again, this is something
we see in animals
04:48
that spend a substantial amount
of time in the water.
04:50
So, as we fleshed out our Spinosaurus --
04:54
I'm looking at muscle attachments
and wrapping our dinosaur in skin --
04:57
we realize that we're dealing
with a river monster,
05:02
a predatory dinosaur, bigger than T. rex,
05:05
the ruler of this ancient river of giants,
05:08
feeding on the many aquatic animals
I showed you earlier on.
05:11
So that's really what makes this
an incredible discovery.
05:14
It's a dinosaur like no other.
05:17
And some people told me, "Wow,
this is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.
05:18
There are not many things left
to discover in the world."
05:22
Well, I think nothing could be
further from the truth.
05:26
I think the Sahara's
still full of treasures,
05:29
and when people tell me there are
no places left to explore,
05:32
I like to quote a famous dinosaur hunter,
Roy Chapman Andrews,
05:35
and he said, "Always, there has been
an adventure just around the corner --
05:39
and the world is still full of corners."
05:44
That was true many decades ago
05:47
when Roy Chapman Andrews
wrote these lines.
05:49
And it is still true today.
05:51
Thank you.
05:53
(Applause)
05:54

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Nizar Ibrahim - Paleontologist
Nizar Ibrahim scours Northern Africa for clues to what things were like there in the Cretaceous period. A 2015 TED Fellow, he has spearheaded the recent search for the semi-aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus.

Why you should listen

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, a postdoc at the University of Chicago, wanted to uncover the mystery of the Spinosaurus, a gigantic predatory dinosaur whose only known remains were lost during World War II. After identifying a new skeleton at a dig in North Africa, Ibrahim made the landmark conclusion that the Spinosaurus may have been the largest carnivorous dinosaur to ever live. Its crocodile-like head, dense bones, short legs, and wide, paddle feet suggest it was a water dweller unlike any other. “The entire skeleton has water-loving river monster written all over it,” he says.

Ibrahim is a TED Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

The original video is available on TED.com
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