National Geographic : 2014 Oct
118 national geographic • October 2014 they could become a Rosetta Stone for under- standing Spinosaurus and its world. To find the spot, however, he would first have to do something tougher than finding a needle in a haystack: find a Bedouin in the desert. “I didn’t know his name, and all I could re- member was that he had a mustache and was wearing white,” Ibrahim says. “Which in Mo- rocco didn’t narrow things down much.” Four years would pass before Ibrahim could return to Erfoud and attempt to track down his man. Along with Samir Zouhri from the Uni- versité Hassan II, Casablanca, and David Martill from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., Ibrahim visited several excavation sites, start- ing with Aferdou N’Chaft. Nobody seemed to recognize Ibrahim’s photos of the Spinosaurus fossils or to know the Bedouin from Ibrahim’s vague description. After searching the streets of Erfoud on their last day, they had finally given up and slumped down in a café. As they sat staring blankly at the people passing on the street, a man with a mustache wearing white walked by. Ibrahim and Zouhri exchanged glances, then hopped up and gave chase. It was the same man. He confirmed that he’d chipped the bones out of a rock face over two months of hard work, first uncovering the bones he had sold to Ibrahim, then finding more farther into the hillside, which he had eventually sold to a fossil dealer in Italy for $14,000. When they asked if he would show them the findspot, however, the man at first refused. Ibrahim, who speaks Arabic, explained how essential it was to know where the bones had been found and why that knowledge would someday allow the dinosaur to return to Morocco, as part of a new museum collection in Casablanca. The Bedouin, who had listened in silence, nodded. “I will show you,” he said. After driving their battered Land Rover through the palm plantation north of Erfoud, the man led them on foot along a dry wadi and up a steep bluff. Strata in the surrounding cliffs showed that great meandering rivers had flowed there a hundred million years ago. Finally they reached a gaping hole in a hill- side, which had once been a riverbank. “ There,” said the Bedouin. Ibrahim climbed in, noting the walls of pur- plish sandstone with yellow streaks. For Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was a life- long enigma. He struggled for decades to un- derstand the strange creature from the pieces of two skeletons that his team had found. He first speculated that its long neural spines might have supported a shoulder hump like a bison’s, then later surmised that they were part of a dorsal sail, like those sported by some modern lizards and chameleons. He noted that Spinosaurus’s n a r r o w jaws were unique among predatory dinosaurs. So were its teeth—most carnivorous theropods had bladelike, serrated teeth, but these were smooth and conical and resembled those of a crocodile. In 1944 nearly all of Stromer’s fossils were destroyed in an Allied air raid. All that was left of Spinosaurus were field notes, drawings, and photographs. n Society Grant The reconstruction of Spinosaurus was funded in part by the Expeditions Council and your National Geographic Society membership.