Summer in the Sahara: Students join professor on dinosaur hunt

Nizar Ibrahim, right, in the Sahara Desert.
Nizar Ibrahim, right, in the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara Desert is one of the most remote places on Earth for a reason: it’s unbearably hot, there’s virtually no rainfall and the high position of the sun makes for extremely long days.

Three University of Detroit Mercy students and a 2019 Detroit Mercy graduate are willing to endure the elements of the Sahara for 10 days this month for the opportunity to go on an expedition with world-renowned paleontologist and Detroit Mercy professor Nizar Ibrahim.

“Professor Ibrahim stepped into our first class and mentioned his expeditions and he said four words that caught my attention immediately, ‘Adventure of a lifetime,’ ” said Detroit Mercy student Farzad Baghaie. “I took that to heart and realized an opportunity like this was not going to be offered twice. It is beyond humbling that I have the chance to be part of a team that will possibly discover fossils that can help contribute to the scientific community.”

Also going on the expedition are Detroit Mercy students Amanda Emke and Saleh Karim, as well as Jacob Tuttle, who graduated from Detroit Mercy in May. All three jumped at the opportunity to accompany Ibrahim on an expedition to the Sahara because of Ibrahim’s reputation.

Ibrahim began making expeditions to the Sahara more than a decade ago and he gained worldwide attention for his work on unlocking the mystery of the Spinosaurus, a sail-backed predator larger in body length than a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Now, Ibrahim is attempting to reconstruct the entire ecosystem of the Sahara of approximately 100 million years ago, which featured a huge river system home to a wide variety of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

“It was very, very different from the Sahara today,” Ibrahim said.

Nizar and co-worker examine some fossilized rock.The grueling conditions in the Sahara make it difficult for scientists, but the conditions are also what make it an untapped resource of fossils.

“Humans haven’t left much of an imprint there. It’s one of the last places on Earth that – for the most part – hasn’t been colonized in some way by humans,” Ibrahim said. “Africa, as it turns out, is extremely underrepresented in our global narrative of the ‘age of dinosaurs’ and in our paleontological data sets. If you go to places like Wyoming or Colorado or Montana in the United States, which are well known for dinosaur fossils, we kind of know what you are going to find in these places. The Sahara is a place that’s continuing to reveal really unexpected and very important new pieces of the history of life on Earth.

“That’s one thing that continues to draw me back to the Sahara, being able to fill big gaps in our knowledge and finding completely unexpected things. Some of this will be revealed later this year, but we found some really, really bizarre things that are forcing us to rewrite some of the textbooks. And for a scientist, that’s a very addictive thing, to keep finding things that are completely novel and unexpected.”

Ibrahim is required to be secretive about some of his recent discoveries in the Sahara and what he hopes to discover, but he also admits a big part of the fun of an expedition is you never know what you will find.

“If you know what you’re going to find then it’s probably not a real expedition,” Ibrahim said with a laugh. “Not knowing what is around the corner and what you might discover is something that still drives me.”

Finding the right students

Ibrahim knew he wanted to take some students on his upcoming expedition, but his philosophy wasn’t to necessarily recruit them.

“You need people who have a real interest and passion for this,” Ibrahim said. “It’s not something where I just go and pick people. It’s the other way around, people actually come and beg me for months on end, ‘If you’re ever going out to the desert again, I’m really interested in paleontology and would love to go.’ That’s really the most important criteria. That’s what really fuels people and lets them put up with the harsh conditions.”

Tuttle, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, knew he wanted to go on an expedition with Ibrahim and he wasn’t shy about it.

“I used to joke with my friends that it was my dream to be able to go on a dig with him in the Sahara,” Tuttle said. “We would always laugh about the idea, but it soon became something that I seriously wanted to happen. I would often ask Dr. Ibrahim about his experiences in the field and would watch his various videos online were he would describe the process, the conditions and every other part of the experience.

“I remember one time, near the end of the semester, we had been discussing future explorations that he had in mind. He had shown me videos of parts of his trip, and after checking my phone, I realized we had been talking for almost two hours. While leaving, I told him that I couldn’t leave without at least expressing my interest in going into the field and experiencing the real side of what we had learned. I had said that if there was ever a possibility, and space on a future trip, that I would be honored to be part of the trip, if he would have me.”

As luck would have it, that opportunity came up and when Ibrahim offered Tuttle the opportunity he took it.

“Dr. Ibrahim is an incredible fountain of knowledge, and to be welcomed as part of this trip, I feel like one of the luckiest people I know,” Tuttle said. “I am so excited to be going on this trip, and I am determined to live it to the fullest.”

Ibrahim knew Tuttle would be a good fit for the trip based on his work in the class room and in the lab.

“Jacob Tuttle has been coming to my lab probably 1,000 times and would always ask me questions,” Ibrahim said. “He was always extremely helpful and offered to help me set up labs, things typically students don’t have to do, but he would offer because he wanted to be helpful and he had a real interest in what I was doing. He comes across as someone who wants to do good and wants to help others. These are attributes you want in someone on your team.”

Baghaie knew the chance to go on an expedition with Ibrahim was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and now that it’s a reality, he feels it will have a lasting impact on both his career and his life.

“The ability to be part of a team to hunt fossils and contribute to the scientific community is a dream that seems to be slowly coming true,” Baghaie said. “It sounds as if it is a scene in a movie. Honestly, how many people can say they’ve hunted fossils in the Sahara?”

A different world

Being in a foreign country, not to mention a desert, presents its own unique challenges for members of the expedition, but Ibrahim is confident it will all be worth it for the students.

“It’s an entirely different cultural and natural landscape. It does feel like being on an entirely different planet in some ways,” Ibrahim said. “The feeling of accomplishment when you brave those challenges is pretty big. I will give them an introduction of some of the things to watch out for, especially how to stay hydrated. The truth is, it’s one of the most remote places in the world. And we are working in a remote area of a developing country so sometimes people get sick or get a stomach bug and there are ways to minimize those risks, but it’s definitely not a trip to Disneyland. You have to be prepared for those challenges but they can be managed. So far all the students on my other expeditions have had a fantastic experience.”

Baghaie admits he is nervous about the heat and adapting to the environment, but all of that is trumped by his excitement for what they can accomplish.

Nizar and co-worker examine a boulder.“I hope to not only find new fossils, but that the fossils will be able to contribute to pertinent information in the scientific community,” Baghaie said. “I want to expand my knowledge of the past to hopefully understand the present and future. I also hope to expand my knowledge of cultures and adventure itself. I hope this opportunity opens new doors and opportunities in the future. It’s one thing to learn about this stuff in class with Dr. Ibrahim, but it’s another to be in the field working alongside him.”

Tuttle says he’s excited to see a place with such rich history and apply some of the things he’s learned in the classroom in the field. He also hopes to strengthen his knowledge of anatomy and apply that knowledge in the future.

“Anatomy is one of my favorite studies in biology and learning how to look at anatomy with a focus of evolution, being able to compare similarities and differences, became fascinating to me,” Tuttle said. “I think that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one which I will be able to carry with me, teaching me how to work outside of my comfort zone. I think this trip will strengthen my love of anatomy.

“I aspire to attend medical school, and Dr. Ibrahim always spoke that a physician with an understanding of comparative anatomy, and the evolution of Homo sapiens has an upper hand in their practice, which is a skill that I feel I can strengthen over the course of this trip.”

Ibrahim is hopeful the students will pick up a number of skills they can transfer either in the class room, their careers or in life.

“The expectation is by the end of it, they will all be very competent at finding fossils and interpreting incomplete finds, identifying quite a few different types of bones and teeth and just being knowledgeable about what it takes to collect data in very challenging environments,” Ibrahim said. “When you’re collecting fossils out there, a lot of times what you are doing is visiting an ancient lost world. So you’re a time traveler but you’re also a detective because you pick up different clues and try to reconstruct past environments – it’s a bit like visiting a crime scene.

“This is going to be a very different experience that only a handful of people on the planet get to experience. It is likely that they will never faces challenges like those we see in the Sahara ever again, but they will be able to use their experience, resilience, and logistical skills in the future to solve other types of challenges in their future lives. Exploring a far flung desert in search of ‘ancient dragons’ sounds more like something from the olden days of exploration. But it’s still being done and I think they will learn a lot from it.”

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