Giant in the Sand
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RAY SUAREZ: Egypt has long been considered a place rich in ancient artifacts and civilizations. A new discovery that was announced today may prove it’s rich in something a lot older, dinosaurs. Researchers have unearthed the fossil of what appears to be the second largest dinosaur on record. It was huge. The long-necked plant eater that was found is believed to have weighed in at about 70 tons and was about 100 feet long. It was found about 180 miles southwest of Cairo at an oasis in the Egyptian Desert. To tell us more we’re joined by Joshua Smith, the PhD candidate at the university of Pennsylvania who was project director for the dig. Congratulations first off.
JOSHUA SMITH: Thanks, ray.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell us more about the dinosaur itself. What does it tell us that we don’t know? What was special about finding it?
JOSHUA SMITH: There are three basic things that are special about this dinosaur. We are putting together this lost assemblage of dinosaur fossils that were discovered by Ernst Stromer, a German paleontologist, in the early part of the 20th century lost during World War II and until now not reclaimed or rediscovered. We are continually pushing the envelope it appears on just how large a terrestrial animal can get. They keep getting bigger. And we’re showing that this ancient ecosystem in Baharia that appears to have had huge predatory dinosaurs, we are starting to see some of the steak they were dining.
RAY SUAREZ: In order to have huge predatory dinosaurs, you need something for them to eat.
JOSHUA SMITH: Exactly.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell us how you found it. Did you know where to look? Did have you any idea what you were looking for?
JOSHUA SMITH: We knew the general location. We knew the Baharia location produced Stromer’s dinosaurs. We didn’t know specifically where to look in terms of where his sites were. We just went to the place and presumed if we got into the same rocks where dinosaurs were found before, we might have some luck. We had one target locality called Jebel eldisk, a mountain, and we had a set of geographic coordinates we thought would send us to that mountain. But I copied them down wrong and we ended up in the wrong place and drove past the titan bones.
RAY SUAREZ: So you were lost. It is a nice, fancy way of saying you were lost.
JOSHUA SMITH: Yeah, we were lost.
RAY SUAREZ: So then you were just looking out the window at desert?
JOSHUA SMITH: Absolutely. We had gotten to the spot and realized the place we were looking for was an isolated conical hill. The place we arrived at was a long linear mountain range. It took us most of the morning to get there so we figured to look around regardless. Spent 40 minutes, weren’t finding anything — got frustrated because we were under time pressure and started driving away. I head my head hanging out the window and I just happened to be looking at the right spot in the desert.
RAY SUAREZ: When you say drove right by it, what did you see?
JOSHUA SMITH: Well, there isn’t a lot out there, there is not a lot of vegetation or wood. There are no large rocks but what we drove by looked like three large rocks sort of in a line, and there’s only a couple things out there that are big either pieces of wood that the Egyptians for whatever reason have moved around or bones or chunks of limestone, things like that. These turned out to be bones.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I’m fascinated that it was so close to the surface because in science class they’re felling you that really old layers of life are way down underneath the ground. Why was a multimillion-year-old dinosaur sticking right out of the ground for to you find?
JOSHUA SMITH: Well, actually most of the dinosaurs that are found are found because erosion has brought the topographic surface, the ground surface down to the place where the bone is. And most of the time we’re walking along and we see a claw sticking out or we a bone sticking out. Most of the time we don’t go out and just start digging randomly in a place. And this was that sort of a case.
RAY SUAREZ: So you uncover this bone you see sticking out. Did it hit you right away that were you dealing with something huge?
JOSHUA SMITH: I sort of thought that it might be a Saurapod based on just the size of the bone alone, but we were under a lot of time pressure, like I said, and we took some photographs and moved on — didn’t revisit the site for a year. And probably it was about two or three days into the excavation of that particular locality before we realized that we might have something of some significance.
RAY SUAREZ: Tough place to work?
JOSHUA SMITH: Yes. Not the toughest I’ve seen but pretty tough. Logistics are pretty nasty.
RAY SUAREZ: When you talk about something that weighs multiscores of tons, it had to be eating a lot of plants. People don’t associate that kind of diet with the Egyptian desert. Was that a different place and was it in a different place on the globe once on a time?
JOSHUA SMITH: Yeah, the rocks that we are finding the dinosaurs in date to about 94 million years before the present in the centimanean stage — what we call the late cretaceous period. During that time period Egypt was on the equator during that time period. It has migrated north a little bit. The area wasn’t a desert. Egypt is now in the middle of one of the driest places on Earth. But as far as we can tell looking at the rocks, the desert sands at that time were replaced with a pretty lush tropical coastline.
RAY SUAREZ: You’re a young fella, as we mentioned, a Ph.D. candidate. This must be quite a feather in your cap, to make a find of this kind?
JOSHUA SMITH: Yeah, I guess I’m a little young to be sitting here talking to you about this. But again we were in the right place at the right time. Or in this case I guess the wrong place at the right time.
RAY SUAREZ: So now is there interest in sending you back to see what is out there?
JOSHUA SMITH: We will go back as long as the Egyptians can put up with us.
RAY SUAREZ: And is it hopeful to you, is it apparent to you that there is a lot more out there? Since as you mentioned, Stromer was out there 100 years ago, you went out there now and made this big find. Is there a lot more to be found?
JOSHUA SMITH: This is the only the first paper that we have managed to crank out sorting through all the information that we’ve collected. Some of the information we’ve collected is still waiting delivery from Cairo. We have a lot more to say and the papers will continue to come. This is just the beginning for that site. I think the site has the potential to be pretty impressive if terms of what we can produce from it. It is not going to be an easy place to produce a lot of good results. It would be easier if we were somewhere else but I think we can do it.
RAY SUAREZ: We opened the segment by saying this is the second largest known dinosaur. The first largest is found in South America, right? Are they related?
JOSHUA SMITH: That’s an animal called argentinesaurus. If you are talking about large, you are talking about mass. Neither of these animals were the longest or tallest. These would have been very heavy stocky animals. And argentinesaurus is pretty closely related; it’s in the same family as the paralatitan.
RAY SUAREZ: When the continents were much closer together.
JOSHUA SMITH: Much closer together. Africa and South America would have just recently parted ways.
RAY SUAREZ: Fascinating stuff. So where are you in the process of telling the world what you know about this now? How does this work in the paleo game?
JOSHUA SMITH: In terms of paralatitan, in terms of Baharia?
RAY SUAREZ: In terms of Paralatitan.
JOSHUA SMITH: In terms of paralatitan, this is hopefully not the end but will produce another paper. In terms of Baharia, we are not even scratching the surface; we’re just standing on the surface looking down.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, thanks for joining us.
JOSHUA SMITH: Thank you for having me.