Detroit Mercy students recount Sahara dinosaur hunt

Group of students and professor Nizar Ibrahim on a hill in the Sahara, the vast ness of the desert behind them.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Jacob.

If you ever find yourself in the middle of the Sahara Desert hunting for fossils and can’t tell whether something is a rock or a bone, there’s a trick.

“If you lick them and they stick to your tongue, it’s a bone,” University of Detroit Mercy Biology Lab Manager Justine Becker said.

Becker learned this tip when she accompanied world-renowned paleontologist and University of Detroit Mercy Assistant Professor Nizar Ibrahim and four Detroit Mercy students on an expedition to the Sahara this past summer.

“I found some that would stick to your tongue,” Becker said. “That moment when you actually validate that it’s a bone, it’s just really special. It was probably my favorite moment.”

The Detroit Mercy students used this trick and others to help them find fossils on the expedition, initially to varying levels of success.

“I definitely licked a lot of rocks,” Detroit Mercy senior Amanda Emke said with a laugh. “One of my favorite things we found was a croc tooth. I had an attachment to it because that’s what I’m studying in research. Knowing I found something on my own made me really excited. We found loads of stuff.”

Ibrahim, who is a National Geographic Explorer, is no stranger to the Sahara Desert. He’s led several expeditions that have gained world-wide fame for his work uncovering a menagerie of prehistoric creatures, including the giant flying reptile Alanqa and the mysterious Spinosaurus, a sail-backed predatory dinosaur larger in body length than a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Ibrahim’s goal is to reconstruct the entire ecosystem of the Sahara of approximately 100 million years ago when it featured a huge river system that served as home to a wide variety of spectacular animals from Africa’s Age of Dinosaurs.

For the Detroit Mercy students who accompanied Ibrahim in this once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity, going to the Sahara this summer was like visiting another planet.

“It was an experience incomparable to any other in my life, I stepped further out of my comfort zone than ever before, but I wouldn’t change it for anything,” said Jacob Tuttle, who graduated from Detroit Mercy in May with a Bachelor of Science in Biology.

Photo of people walking up a large hill with the sun beating down on them.
Photo courtesy of Andreas Jacob.

“I was pushed physically and mentally to handle the intense hiking and heat that was a part of the trip. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life getting to be a part of Dr. Ibrahim’s team. It was so exciting to go with his group and help to find dinosaur remains.”

The treasures Ibrahim’s team found on the trip are under a strict embargo for the time being, but he expects to announce some of the discoveries in the coming months.

“It was very successful,” he said. “We’re not allowed to share with the world, yet. But we found amazing things and some of the things we found were exactly what I was hoping to find. It was a little spooky: there were a few things we absolutely wanted to find and we found them.”

Climbing the mountain

The sun in the Sahara Desert is very intense, requiring some of the students to cover nearly every part of their body at times.

“The conditions were brutal,” Ibrahim said. “You can tell people it’s going to be really hot, but there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the Sahara heat. Some people in the team really struggled to cope with the conditions. The students were doing ok for the most part. I think survival instincts kicked in.”

As if being in 120-degree heat in the middle of the desert wasn’t enough of a test, Ibrahim had his students climb steep escarpments and mountains, including at a remote site called Gara Sbaa.

“We’re standing at the bottom of this very large mountain,” Detroit Mercy junior Farzad Baghaie said. “There’s a plateau at the top and I look at Dr. Ibrahim and he’s like, ‘We’re going to climb that.’ On the journey up there were a few slips, but finally at the top I think it was the most ecstatic moment because I let out a scream and I’m pretty sure Dr. Ibrahim let out a scream, and he greeted me with a handshake. That was probably my favorite moment of the whole trip.”

Ibrahim said he tried to pick the easiest path he could up the mountain, but even the “easy route” wasn’t exactly easy.

“Doing the climb in that kind of heat really pushes you to the limit,” Ibrahim said. “I got up there and I was expecting some people not to make it, to turn around halfway up the mountain, but over the course of the next 45 minutes or so they all made it. The students were motivating and pushing each other. They were all exhausted but they were glad they did it because the view was amazing.”

Tuttle said climbing the mountain was definitely a huge test, but well worth it in the end.

“I was walking up the mountain with a journalist and writer chronicling our adventure and as we were walking up the hill we said, ‘Yeah, Dr. Ibrahim’s definitely trying to kill us,’ ” Tuttle said.

“One of the most fascinating fossils that I found was at the top of Gara Sbaa. So when you get all the way up there, you’re on top of this limestone platform and if you take the slabs of limestone and you crack them open, you can actually find fish fossils inside the limestone, a thousand feet up in the air, in the middle of the desert in 120-degree weather. It helps to really wrap your head around the idea of deep time and the environment can change so much in the course of millions of years.”

Where fossils come from

All of the students had their favorite moments of the trip, but for all them, finding their first fossil was special.

“My favorite moment was also when we excavated the first fossil,” Detroit Mercy senior Saleh Karim said. “The excitement that was on the faces of everyone on the team was unbelievable. I appreciated all the hard work that goes into finding fossils. When you’re just studying them in the lab, you don’t really understand the whole path the fossil took to get there. I remember thinking on the trip, ‘All I want to do when I get back is start research right away.’ I was so excited to do it.”

Ibrahim has discovered his fair share of fossils, but says each discovery is still exciting as the first.

“The moment of discovery is so special,” Ibrahim said. “We were the first humans to see these bones after almost 100 million years. You’re in one of the driest, most uninhabitable places on Earth, yet the fossils we are finding are of water-loving creatures. The idea that this place was a giant river system that probably covered an area about the size of the United States, stretching all the way from Morocco to Egypt, is kind of mind blowing.

“Very few people realize how much planning, hard work and logistical headache goes into preparing an expedition. You see bones in a museum and they’re just sitting there, but to really understand the whole process is something I wanted the students to experience. There is something very special about suddenly having these bones from these ‘dragons from deep time’ emerging from the sands and rocks, that’s pretty magical.”

Each time one of the students found something, Ibrahim made sure to turn it into a teaching moment.

“Dr. Ibrahim would kind of quiz us and ask what it is, just see if we can figure it out on our own,” Emke said. “I really enjoyed that because it helps you learn and develop your critical thinking skills to determine what kind of bone it is or what species the tooth came from.”

Ibrahim compares hunting fossils to the work of a detective who follows the clues to solve a case.

“This detective work that we do to identify things, that’s a really important part of the process and that’s why I kept quizzing them,” Ibrhaim said. “We would find all these different teeth and the size and shape tell us what the animals were feeding on and we can also establish the diversity at a given site. It’s fun. Piecing some of the bigger things together is basically like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle with no instructions.”

Only at Detroit Mercy

Being able to accompany a National Geographic Explorer on a fossil hunting expedition to the Sahara Desert isn’t something every student at every school has the opportunity to do. Ibrahim knows that and it’s a huge factor for why he wanted to bring students along.

“One of the things I really wanted to do when I came to the University of Detroit Mercy was offer opportunities that did not exist here before,” Ibrahim said. “Opportunities that are only offered at a very, very small number of universities. It was a big deal for me to bring students from Michigan out to the Sahara.”

The students realize they were part of something special and are very thankful to Ibrahim and the University for providing them the opportunity.

“I love this University,” Emke said. “I think the fact that it’s a smaller school, that gives students the opportunity to form closer relationships with the professors. I think that’s one of the factors that enabled me to go on this trip. I think being able to experience this, it’s something that I’ll be able to talk about for the rest of my life. It’s one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken and it wasn’t even a vacation.”

“We were all part of something that’s going to be big,” Karim said. “We found bones that are 100 million years old and this will stick with me forever. I’m not going to forget this. I’m very thankful.”

By Dave Pemberton

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