Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim can recall the exact moment when he realized following a hunch had paid off with a remarkable discovery.
The Detroit Mercy Assistant Professor of Biology, TED Fellow, and National Geographic Explorer had returned to the dig site in the Sahara Desert where he originally discovered Spinosaurus fossils and elected to remove more than 15 tons of rock because he felt there was more to be discovered.
Ibrahim was right, but even he didn’t know what he would find. As he was excavating a tailbone with an extremely long spine, something he had never seen before, he knew battling the heat, sandstorms, snakes and the nightmares of doing a dig in the Sahara were worth it.
“That was the exact moment when we realized we had something really huge,” Ibrahim said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, we have the tail of Spinosaurus isn’t that neat?’ That’s when we realized, ‘Oh, I think we have to rewrite the dinosaur textbooks.’ ”
Ibrahim still struggles to put into words exactly how he felt in that moment, but he knew it was a life-changing discovery.
“There are so many different things going through your head, you realize many of these bones are the first bones of their kind that we have found for Spinosaurus because we only have this one Spinosaurus skeleton,” Ibrahim said. “Then you realize you’re really going to redefine the image of this iconic dinosaur, which is a childhood dream — if you want to be a paleontologist that’s what you want to do.
“You have this incredible rush of adrenaline and all these different thoughts going through your mind and in many ways it’s the culmination of many, many years of work and you’ve been working toward this goal for a very long time, in some ways since you were five. But at the same time, it’s almost surreal.”
The discovery led to Ibrahim’s latest paper which was published in the prestigious journal Nature and featured on National Geographic. Ibrahim and his team’s research showed the predatory dinosaur Spinosaurus was aquatic and used tail-propelled swimming locomotion to hunt for prey in a massive river system. It is the first time such an adaptation has been reported in a dinosaur.
Ibrahim expected the discovery to generate plenty of buzz around the world, but even he couldn’t predict how big it would become.
Hours after the paper was published Spinosaurus was trending on Twitter, articles were published by CNN, The New York Times, ABC News and FOX News, just to name a few. NPR’s “Here and Now” used an image of Spinosaurus for their show that day. Even outlets like The Onion, SyFy and The Weather Channel posted stories.
The news captivated the attention of gamers, who demanded the popular Nintendo Switch game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, update its Spinosaurus fossils to reflect the new findings. Even NFL star Myles Garrett expressed his joy on Twitter after reading about his favorite dinosaur.
Spinosaurus was everywhere and so was Ibrahim.
“That’s probably one of the best things about the entire experience, the incredible and extremely positive reaction this has generated in the general public,” Ibrahim said. “It obviously puts a smile on my face to see a dinosaur trending on Twitter versus the usual mix largely consisting of overrated celebrities and politicians.
“One thing that really struck me was how emotional some people were about it. If you read some of the Tweets, for some people this story about the discovery of a bizarre water-loving dinosaur was one of the highlights of their year. And then there’s the artwork, literally a day after the paper came out there were already countless pieces of artwork on Twitter and Instagram and, of course, there were memes, so it was only a question of time before the dinosaur ended up on Know Your Meme. I can’t really think of any platform that Spinosaurus hasn’t invaded yet.”
As much as Ibrahim loves all the attention his discovery is getting, what really gets him excited is the discovery itself.
“It really changes the way we think about a huge group of animals that ruled our planet for an incredibly long period of time,” Ibrahim said. “So in that sense it’s not just about Spinosaurus, but about dinosaurs as a whole. We used to think of them as land dwelling animals which eventually gave rise to birds — the one thing they didn’t do was invade the aquatic world. Or so we thought.
“The discovery reverses decades old dogma and really opens up a whole new world of ecological possibilities for dinosaurs. Unlike the vast majority of other dinosaur discoveries, this one really changes things pretty drastically in terms of what we now know dinosaurs could actually do. There’s nothing like this in over 200 million years of dinosaur evolution, which is pretty remarkable.”
It’s a discovery that wouldn’t have been made if Ibrahim didn’t follow his hunch. On a dig, Ibrahim’s team had found a tailbone, but couldn’t continue their search because they didn’t have the proper equipment to remove the nearly 15 tons of rock.
“Around that time, I started thinking about a return, but it only became clear that we really struck gold and made a major discovery in 2018 when we did actually remove the overburden and suddenly realized we have all of these tailbones just lying there and we had a largely complete tail on our hands.”
The discovery was also a major milestone for Detroit Mercy student Juliana Jakubczak, who is credited as a co-author on Ibrahim’s paper.
“When I was really young I wanted to be a paleontologist so this is a childhood dream,” Jakubczak said. “I’d like to thank him for allowing me to be a part of this paper, part of his team and he’s an amazing professor and amazing research advisor. It’s just been a pleasure to be a part of this team and all the amazing people who worked on this. He’s really like the modern day Indiana Jones. He totally embodies that, but way, way more knowledgeable than Indiana Jones.”
Jakubczak’s job was to do literature research on how animals move through water with their tails.
Other Detroit Mercy students were involved in the project, including several who went on a field expedition with Ibrahim to the Sahara last year.
“There were a number of students directly and indirectly involved in this in other ways” Ibrahim said. “The acknowledgements of the paper include the 2018 and 2019 field crews and there were a number of Detroit Mercy students out there in 2019 actively working at the Spinosaurus site.”
Ibrahim said he plans to continue hunting the Sahara for new discoveries because he believes there is still so much to be found.
“Doing fieldwork in the Sahara is logistically extremely challenging, and it’s tough, but it’s also extremely rewarding,” Ibrahim said. “I think if you just look at the size of the place, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are many, many hidden paleontological treasures to be found there. Of course, it’s going to be really difficult and tough to find them, but they’re definitely there, just waiting to be uncovered.”
Ibrahim will be hard pressed to top his latest discovery, but not many thought he would be able to top his first Spinosaurus discovery, which revealed the world’s most complete Spinosaurus skeleton and first skeleton since the only other one discovered was destroyed during World War II.
“After we made the first big announcement on Spinosaurus back in 2014, some people said, ‘How can you possibly top that? You set the bar really high. It’s going to be impossible to top this.’ And I was just like, ‘Hold my beer,’ ” Ibrahim said with a laugh. “Now I kind of feel the same thing, ‘How am I going to top that?’ This dinosaur has literally broken the internet and it was published in the world’s top scientific journal. But we have other really exciting projects we’re working on right now, some of them are in the pipeline. It’s certainly a landmark moment in many ways for me personally, but I’m sure it’s not going to be the last big highlight.”