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A Penn graduate student’s quest to rediscover the “lost dinosaurs of Egypt” was a story made for television—a two-hour documentary will air this winter—and led to a spectacular new find as well.

By John Prendergast


January 1999. A landcruiser drives across the Egyptian desert, moving at about 30 miles per hour. Leaning out the passenger window, a young man scans the terrain, periodically checking it against a written description of the area made three-quarters of a century earlier. Suddenly, he spots something on the ground and shouts, “Stop here!”
   The something—to the untrained eye a charred log—will turn out to be part of the fossilized skeleton of a new species of dinosaur that was among the largest creatures ever to walk the planet. Finding it was only the most outrageous stroke of fortune in a project that began with a coincidence: that two of the three people in that jeep shared the name Smith.

From left: Jennifer Smith, Matthew Lamanna, Joshua Smith, and Dr. Peter Dodson with the 67 inch humerus of Paralititan stromeri, a new species of dinosaur discovered in Egypt. Photo by Addison Geary.

Jennifer Smith is a doctoral candidate in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science (EES). Her dissertation research involves studying the geology of Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis, located in the Western Sahara about 180-190 miles from Cairo, for evidence of climate change and hominid and human habitation during periods when the Sahara cycled from a desert to a savanna environment.
  She made her first visit to the oasis in 1998, accompanied by her dissertation advisor, Dr. Robert Giegengack, professor and department chair of EES [“The World According to Gieg,” January/February 2000]. But the following year, Giegengack was not available to stay with her for the entire five weeks planned, which posed a problem for a female researcher in a Muslim country. “The idea was I needed a companion to stay with me—male, obviously,” Smith recalls, good-humoredly. “It would look OK that I was going to be out in the desert because some big, strong man would be taking care of me.” Enter fellow EES doctoral student Joshua Smith. Besides possessing the requisite size and strength for a bodyguard—as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he also served in the army—Josh was a trained sedimentologist, which meant he could be useful to Jennifer as an assistant in her research as well. The similarity in their names was an added bonus, allowing Josh to pass as brother or husband. (In reality, he is her fiancé.) And he had always wanted to visit Egypt.
   There was only one holdup. Josh Smith is a student of vertebrate paleontology—dinosaurs—and he needed to secure the cooperation of his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Peter Dodson, professor of anatomy in the veterinary school, who also has a partial appointment to EES. Smith calls Dodson “one of the top five dinosaur people in the country,” and adds that he “has been very good about supporting my crazy ideas and putting me on a plane” to pursue them. Even so, Dodson would not look kindly on Josh spending five weeks away from his own work just to be helpful. Some scientific justification for the trip was needed. 
   As luck would have it, the route to Jen Smith’s research site passed through an area where, in the early part of the 20th century, a German paleontologist associated with the University of Munich named Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach had made several discoveries—the best known of which was Spinosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex-sized carnivore, or theropod, with a distinctive five-foot “sail” on its back. That specimen, and most of the rest of Stromer’s fossils, were destroyed on April 24, 1944, when Royal Air Force bombs set fire to the Munich museum in which they were housed.


Penn’s dinosaur hunters followed in the footsteps of Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, who discovered four species of dinosaurs in excavations 1911-1914. The most famous was Spinosaurus, whose partial skeleton is shown mounted in a newly discovered photo (above). It and all of Stromer’s specimens were destroyed in World War II.

 “Every new dinosaur paleontologist knows the story of Stromer’s ‘lost’ dinosaurs inside and out. It’s become a legend,” says Josh, who names Spinosaurus as his favorite dinosaur when he was growing up, “just because it got ignored.” 
   Stromer made his first visit to the Bahariya Oasis in 1911, and in three seasons of excavating discovered 40-50 genera of plant and animal organisms, including “seven or eight dinosaur genera and a host of other taxa—turtles, crocodiles, more than 20 genera of fish,” Smith says. The fossils Stromer excavated were from a rock unit called the Bahariya Formation that was about 100 million years old, in the Cretaceous era (144-65 million years ago). That was “about the time the dinosaurs were really starting to get their steam going,” Smith explains, as rising sea levels turned what had been a single land mass into isolated continents, leading to more divergent evolutionary paths in different parts of the world. 
   Separated from his collecting possibilities by the coming of the first world war, Stromer concentrated on describing the material he had managed to bring out of Egypt. With the exception of some small specimens that curators had surreptitiously removed for safekeeping before the bombs fell, those descriptions were thought to be all that remained of Stromer’s discoveries. “For whatever reason, nobody really went back to Egypt” to search for dinosaurs after World War II, says Smith. This despite the fact that “these critters were just bizarrely spectacular animals—not only did [Stromer] find lots of animals but they were all weird.”
   Besides Spinosaurus, Stromer’s other finds include two more large carnivores: Carcharodontosaurus, an animal with a skull six-feet long, equipped with very powerful blade-like teeth (carcharodon is the name of a giant shark); and Bahariasaurus, about which much less is known, but which has a femur the size of T. rex. In addition to these predators, Stromer also discovered a smaller plant-eating dinosaur, or sauropod, that he named Aegyptosaurus.
   The Bahariya Oasis had also scored exceptionally high—five out of five—on a scale devised by another EES graduate student, Matthew Lamanna, to analyze where major new dinosaur discoveries could potentially be made. Bahariya “was the only place I could think of where we knew one could produce various spectacular dinosaurs—but that no longer existed, having been blown up in World War II,” he says. “It was a pipe dream.”
   The chance to spend some time searching for Stromer’s lost dinosaurs—after some negotiating, Jen and Josh settled on three days—provided an acceptable rationale for Josh to make the trip, but no one had very high expectations. “I was kind of, not blowing that aspect off, but [my attitude] was, ‘Well, this will justify him going,” recalls Jen. “And we went out there and in a matter of hours there were bones all over the place. It was absolutely amazing.”
   While Stromer had left no maps or known photographs of his sites, he had made notes about the places he excavated. “We took the descriptions of his landforms, translated them and then drove around in the desert looking for stuff that matched,” says Josh. For a variety of reasons—not least that 85 years had passed—this method “was probably the dumbest way we could have gone about it,” but “we got really lucky.” About 45 minutes into the drive on the first morning, “I’m hanging my head out of the car window at 30 miles an hour and I see a bone” about 10 inches in diameter and a foot long. A few more bones lay on the surface nearby. From their size and the fact that they were not hollow, Josh judged that the bones probably belonged to a large sauropod—“one of the long-necked, long-tailed guys.” By the end of the day, they had found 20 accumulations of bones. “It was a great day,” Josh recalls. “The bone density was phenomenal.”


Map showing location of the Bahariya Oasis and the site of the Paralititan discovery.
Gebel el Dist, the most prominent feature on the nearby landscape.

The results of the initial reconnaissance clearly warranted a full-scale expedition to continue the search for Stromer’s original sites and to follow up on Josh’s own discoveries. But how to pay for it?
    That question started to get answered one night back in Philadelphia, when Smith met R. Scott Winters Gr’01, then a Ph.D. candidate in biology, for drinks at the New Deck Tavern and began talking about his trip to Egypt. “Josh and I had been old friends and I’ve known Peter [Dodson] for years and have an interest in paleontology,” Winters says.
    But Winters, who is not your ordinary graduate student, had a more-than- curious interest in Smith’s story. While his research interests are “primarily in theoretical biology,” using techniques from computer science and mathematics to look at computationally intensive problems in ecology, he also has a longtime involvement in the exploration community, writing articles and editing an online newsletter for the Explorers Club, an international organization founded in 1904 to promote field research and scientific exploration.
    More to the point, Winters is partner in a film production company that specializes in science- and expedition-based documentaries, and he thought Josh’s story had definite possibilities. The fact that Josh had made such major finds in just three days was “an excellent story in and of itself.” Add the compelling Stromer “back-story”—“You know, that [Josh] possibly had gone back to the same site”—and selling the package as a documentary was practically a “slam-dunk,” he says. “I asked Josh if I could get a little bit more involved in the project and could possibly get him funding, and he certainly was amenable to that. Quite literally, after I left the New Deck I pulled out my cell phone and made a couple of calls.”
    Within a few weeks, Winters was able to negotiate a deal whereby another company, Los Angeles-based, MPH Entertainment, would provide $50,000 to fund the project’s first field season in January-February 2000 in return for the rights to make a documentary about it in association with Winters’ company, Last Word Productions. This spring, the film rights were sold to Cosmos Studios. The two-hour documentary will premiere on the A&E Network in late 2001 or early 2002, with the title The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt. In addition, it will be shown at the Jackson Hole Film Festival in September.
    With the funding from MPH in hand, says Josh, “We got 21 people together, and we trucked them across the pond and dumped them in the middle of the desert for six weeks, and we excavated like fiends.”
    With Josh as leader, Peter Dodson, Matt Lamanna, Jennifer Smith, and Kenneth Lacovera, a sedimentologist from Drexel University, created the Bahariya Dinosaur Project (BDP). They formed the core of the field-expedition team, which also included Jason Poole, chief fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and several volunteers. The film crew made up the rest of the 21-person total, including MPH Entertainment partner and documentary-director Jim Milio, a veteran of the syndicated television series Rescue 911 and other projects, and Vladimir Perlovich, a television and film producer who is Winters’ partner in Last Word.
    With the help of Bob Giegengack’s network of contacts made during three decades of working as a geologist in Egypt, the BDP formed a partnership with the Cairo Geological Museum and the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority giving them exclusive rights to excavate in the Bahariya Oasis for five years. In an unusually liberal provision of the agreement, half of the fossils excavated will come to Philadelphia and the other half stay in Cairo. (By contrast, in a dinosaur project in Argentina in which Penn is a partner, the fossils cannot leave the country even to be studied.)


Excavating “like fiends” in between sandstorms and bouts of food poisoning, field workers amassed five and a half tons of bones for shipment back to Philadelphia.
Matt Lamanna with Paralititan humerusafter excavation.

The team arrived in Egypt on January 11, 2000. After a few days in Cairo, they drove to Bawiti, the largest town in the oasis, and set up their headquarters at the El Beshmo Lodge. “Logistically, it was one of the cushiest situations I’ve ever been in,” says Peter Dodson. While Bawiti was “a very primitive lifestyle, with almost nothing to please the eye,” the El Beshmo was “very, very attractive.”
    Jen Smith also retains fond memories of the place. “We had relatively hot showers almost every day, toilets that flushed, and rooms with tile floors. And somebody cooked us food. For fieldwork in a third-world country [that] is really good. Normally we work based out of a mudbrick hut with a dirt floor and a pit toilet and there’s no running water. That’s what I’m used to.”
    But the work environment itself was far from cushy. For the first few weeks, “we froze our butts off,” Josh Smith says. Daytime temperatures ranged in the high 30s-low 40s with “serious” winds, before rising to 85-90 degrees by the end of the season. And then there were the sandstorms—three of them in the space of two weeks.
    “The desert’s a pretty unforgiving place. And we took some people that didn’t have a lot of field experience along with us. It was sort of a baptism by fire. The film crew had a really rough time with it,” Josh says. Then one night, “right after one of the sandstorms, right before one of the other ones,” everyone got food poisoning. “So we had people down from FP and sand-related problems and then morale went right through the floor. And this is before we really found anything.”
    “As we explored, we actually found sites that we believe to be some of Stromer’s original sites,” says Lamanna. “We found what are very obviously excavation pits that had been filled in with sand blown in by the wind, in some cases burlap” which, soaked in plaster, was wrapped around fossils for protection during transport, “and even in one case a little scrap of newsprint with German writing on it.”
    But not much in the way of fossils. For a time, it seemed that the charmed project had run out of luck.
    “In the beginning, everyone was just very, very excited, and what we found quickly was that bones on the surface didn’t always mean that there’s a whole skeleton waiting to be found,” Jen Smith says. In most climates, dinosaur fossils are found enclosed in soft sediments. In a desert environment, though, the wind blows the soft sediment away, but can’t move the bones, so they collect on the surface. A bone may have come out of a level that was 10 feet above the present surface “and everything else is gone,” she says. “You see these bones on the surface and go, ‘That’s great,’ and then you dig and there’s nothing. For the first week or so, until we realized that this was the pattern and not the exception, people would be calling in on the walkie-talkies, ‘Hey, we found something!’ and everybody would rush over and start digging and there would be nothing.”
    It wasn’t until January 27 that the team returned to the first site—where Josh, hanging from the landcruiser, had seen the dinosaur bone—and made the project’s biggest single discovery to date. “We didn’t go back [sooner] because it was one of the least impressive sites we found just to look at,” Josh explains. “All these other places had bones littering the ground. We thought they’d be much more productive sites, and they turned out to be crap.”
    While the bones on the surface were all that had been left at other sites, when they started to dig this time they found much more, including one entire humerus (upper arm bone) that measured 67 inches and part of another. By the end of the season, they had excavated about a quarter of the skeleton of what appeared to be a new—and very large—genus of dinosaur.
    With this discovery, “We hit paydirt along the likes of which most people go their entire careers without,” Josh says, a mix of excitement and incredulity still in his voice months later. “The probability of this actually happening was almost nothing. I still can’t believe it. The number of coincidences that lined up to allow me to find this skeleton are almost enough to make me believe in a higher power. It’s astonishing.”
    Coincidentally (there’s that word again), on the same day that the team returned to the sauropod site and found the skeleton, Matt Lamanna made the season’s other major find. About a half-mile from the sauropod site, Matt was leading two other field workers on a hike through the hills. He recalls hearing Josh’s voice crackle over the walkie-talkie, calling the teams back, and then noticing “patches of sediment that looked like dinosaur skin, but it wasn’t, and then I looked down and I saw tons of fossilized bone everywhere. There were pieces of turtle shell, fish jaws, parts of dinosaurs. And all the stuff was very well-preserved. It was the first occasion that we had collected well-preserved stuff from Bahariya.” Such non-dinosaur material is invaluable in determining the environment in which dinosaurs lived and the other animals and plants they shared it with, says Lamanna, who named the area Jon’s Birthday Site, in honor of his brother, born on January 27.
    While the fossil record of North America was fleshed out in an explosion of excavation in the late-1800s—fueled in large part by the “bone wars” between rival paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope—the record of other continents is “pretty poor,” by comparison, Lamanna adds. “There are entire chunks of millions and millions of years that we have absolutely no evidence of what the fauna or flora were like.” Dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period in Africa—the time represented by the Bahariya Formation—“are almost totally unknown.”


Plaster “jackets” encasing the fossils—some weighing 800 lbs—were lifted using a “rickety tripod held together by a couple of rusty bolts” for transport at the end of the field season.
Josh Smith and Matt Lamanna brush debris from a fossil.

The big discoveries came just in time. The film crew was scheduled to leave soon, for one thing, and at the halfway point in the field season, “you’re getting around the time when, if you find a large animal, you’re not going to be able to get the whole thing out,” says Lamanna.
    Ground conditions in the oasis varied, but the large sauropod was “in some clay that was pretty tough,” Jen Smith recalls. Field workers used spikes and hammers to chisel away at the ground, “splitting open blocks. And the trick is to split open the block but not the bone.” She at least had had some previous field experience, but by the end “they needed every hand they could get. It was basically, ‘If you’re not going to break more than you find, help out.’”
    When a bone is uncovered, field workers clean it and apply a stabilizing chemical to the rock, then wrap the specimen with aluminum foil. A plaster cast is then created to protect it during transport. Some of these “jackets” weighed as much as 800 pounds, which created a problem when it was time to load them up at the end of the field season.
    A hoped-for forklift failed to materialize on the final day. “What we ended up doing was we got a flatbed truck to drive out to the quarry, [and] our Egyptian colleagues managed to locate this rickety tripod held together by a couple of rusty bolts,” Jen says. “We’re trying to lift these 800-pound things, and everybody knows the best way to do it, and there’s not the greatest communication because there’s different languages spoken, and the sun had gone down, the moon was coming up.” They had to be on the road by three in the morning to make a nine a.m. meeting with the director of the Geological Survey the next day. “It was a madhouse, but it got done and that’s what matters.”


The film crew moves in for a close-up.

Relations between the field workers and the film crew were friendly—for the most part. “We did make extensive use of the landcruisers in throwing rotten food at each other, driving back and forth between the sites,” says Josh. “We had epic fruiting battles, it was fantastic.” In one 20-minute skirmish, “we’re doing like 60 mph across this sandy road and then all of a sudden we hit this field of boulders! We almost tore the axle out of the thing. I managed to get the shot off, and then we ran for home. But those are how our days went, it was a crazy time.”
    Besides the field work in Egypt, additional filming for the documentary took place on Penn’s campus and at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where the bones were stored and analyzed, as well as in Munich and the Florida Everglades. The latter trip was made because, based on the fossil evidence, they believe that the Bahariya Oasis 100 million years ago looked something like the mangrove swamps of the Florida Everglades today.
    The team was led to the Florida analogue by the fact that lagoonal sediments were found directly overlying marine sandstones. “In a normal coastal environment, as the sea comes up you normally record a shoreline, in terms of a beach, so in the stratigraphic sequence you’ll end up with the marine sands, the beach, and then the lagoonal deposits and then the terrestrial deposits on top of that,” says Smith. “In many places in the oasis we’ve got these lagoonal deposits directly comformable with these marine sands.” The usual answer would be that there is a time gap—the beach has eroded away, leaving lagoonal deposits much younger than the marine sands—but in Bahariya, “We’ve got roots growing from the lagoonal muds into the marine sands,” which only happens in mangrove swamps.
    Early last summer, Josh and Matt also accompanied the film crew to Munich to fill in Stromer’s history for the documentary and to search for any additional evidence that might help in future excavation in Bahariya. “It was really eerie in many ways to open up the drawers of the collections of the museum and look at the only remaining parts of the collection that weren’t blown up,” says Josh. “We were looking through Stromer’s diaries to try and find out what he was thinking—you know, are there localities that he hasn’t published on that are in his diaries?”
    So far, the diaries haven’t turned up any additional clues, but researchers for MPH did make another significant discovery—more than 100 glass-plate negatives of Stromer’s specimens. “These were things the scientific community didn’t even know existed,” says Scott Winters. “We were able to very directly contribute to the body of scientific knowledge by bringing these back to light.”
    One of the photos even showed the partial skeleton of Spinosaurus, mounted in a glass case in the museum. “To my knowledge, nobody realized that Spinosaurus had actually been mounted, and it’s weird to be sitting there looking at it, and it’s totally gone,” says Josh.
    MPH’s researchers also uncovered details of Stromer’s life—including the good news that he was not a Nazi sympathizer. “We were a little bit afraid that we were doing this documentary on the work of this ardent Nazi, and we didn’t really think that was a noble thing to do,” says Matt Lamanna. “But apparently he was just the opposite—which made us all breathe a sigh of relief.”


In his cluttered office in the veterinary school, Peter Dodson reflects on the “very fruitful relationship” that exists between Josh Smith and Matt Lamanna. “Between the two of them they are really great dreamers,” he says. “They sit down and think about the ideal world and what they would do in that ideal world, and one of the things they would do is lead a project to an exotic place and really make their mark. It was just a wonderful coincidence of events that the invitation to go [to Egypt] and do geology coincided with the place that rated so high on the wish list.”
    Dodson, whose works include many articles and the books The Horned Dinosaurs: A Natural History and (as editor) Dinosauria, says his own interests in paleontology, which lean toward small fossils—what he calls the “supporting cast of characters”—“nicely complement the interests and strengths of Matt and Josh, and I’m always up to visiting a new terrain and so was very, very happy to go” on the expedition.
    In his book The Riddle of the Dinosaur, John Noble Wilford notes that paleontologists have mostly managed to parlay a childhood fascination with dinosaurs into a professional career. Penn’s dinosaur hunters are no exception.
    “I’m one of the arrested 12-year-olds,” Josh admits cheerfully. “I had an uncle who is a physicist, and about the time I was six he saw this curiosity or something, and he decided to start working me towards the ways of science. So the telescopes started, the microscopes, the chemistry sets—and the first book on dinosaurs. It was over.” Matt Lamanna remembers being interested in dinosaurs—and knowing about Ernst Stromer—since “my very early childhood, maybe single digits.”
    Dodson informed his parents he wanted to be a paleontologist when he was 11 (getting a better response than in your average household, as his father was a professor of biology at Penn), though an even earlier formative experience came when he was taken to see Disney’s Fantasia by his mother at six years old. “This wonderful scene [of the dinosaurs’ extinction] made a great impression on me, of course.”
    Asked to speculate about the widespread interest in dinosaurs, especially among the young, he cites use of them to address ideas of extinction, along with an attraction to dinosaurs’ immense size for small children, not to mention the desire to show off before—and show up—one’s parents by possessing specialized knowledge that they don’t share.
    But the study of dinosaurs has much to tell all of us, he emphasizes, “about the geology of the time, the geography of the time, very much about the course of evolution.” Pointing to the present-day concerns over the loss of biodiversity, the study of dinosaurs “teaches us a great deal about the dynamics of biodiversity, changes in biodiversity in time and the effects of connections and separations among continents—the effect of environmental changes that are documented in the fossil record,” he adds. “It gives us a great sense of perspective; it gives us a knowledge base to draw on; and it gives us a sense of humility in that we’re so concerned about the events of the last five-10-15-20 years, and here we see the events of millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions of years—and perhaps realize that our petty little time scales are really quite ephemeral and insignificant.”


Computer rendering of Paralititan stromeri.Copyright 2001 Cosmos Studios / MPH Entertainment.

Since returning from the first field season in Egypt, Josh and his colleagues have been focused on much shorter time scales, however. In between filming for the documentary on Penn’s campus and elsewhere, they have been analyzing the five and one half tons of bones brought back from Egypt to Philadelphia, and writing up a description of the new sauropod for a paper in the journal Science that was published June 1.
    The formal announcement of the discovery, at a press conference May 31, attended by the BDP team as well as representatives from MPH Entertainment, Cosmos Studios and the A&E Network, prompted stories in newspapers from The New York Times to The Times of India and a slew of TV and radio coverage.
    As the discoverers of the dinosaur, they got to decide what to call it. They have named it Paralititan—which Josh translates as, roughly, “tidal giant or coastal giant”—stromeri, in tribute to Ernst Stromer.
    Paralititan’s humerus, which measured 67 inches, “is longer than that of any known Cretaceous sauropod,” says the paper, in one of the few sentences a layperson can easily grasp. Comparing it to other members of the family titanisauridae, to which they believe Paralititan belongs, they calculate that it was just a bit less massive than Argentinosaurus, the current heavyweight champion in the dinosaur world. “She probably touched 100 feet long, and she might have touched 60-70-75 tons,” says Josh. “She would have had a hard time fitting on the lawn in front of 
College Hall.”
    Tracing the significance of this discovery for paleoecology, he adds, “We’re dealing with one of the largest animals ever found. We put this animal in a environment—a mangrove swamp—that we haven’t seen dinosaurs go into yet; this is a totally new paradigm, as far as we can tell.” Add Stromer’s discoveries of Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Bahariasaurus, and “what we have are three Tyrannosaurus-sized predators walking around this 100 million year-old mangrove swamp with this enormous-sized population of sauropods,” he says. “The biomass of these animals is huge. Mangrove swamps are the second most productive ecosystems on the planet, just after rainforests. Kick the CO2 levels up to what they were in the Cretaceous, and we are dealing with what may have been the most biologically productive ecosystem of the Mesozoic [Era],” the age of the dinosaurs, from 245-65 million years ago.
   The diagnosis of a new species is a highly ritualized business. “There’s a certain set of rules that you have to follow, and if you don’t do it according to those rules, it’s not valid,” says Josh. “Somebody can come along and rename it or sink it.” But behind the Latinate phrases parsing what he describes, more colloquially, as a “really big, big, big-ass dinosaur on the Egyptian coast” is an effort to “get it through people’s heads that the world changes: Go back a hundred million years, the Sahara was a tidal flat. The coast wasn’t where it is. It wasn’t desert, it was humid,” he says. “If we manage somehow to get four or five people who didn’t realize that beforehand to go, ‘Ah, that’s pretty cool,’ that’s science, that’s getting it done.”


This past winter, the team departed for its second field season in Egypt, again funded by Cosmos Studios and MPH Entertainment, which, before the first documentary aired—or was even completed—had started planning a sequel. 
    The first priority was to look for more of the Paralititan fossil. “We tripled the size of the quarry, and we didn’t find a goddamn thing,” says Josh with a rueful shrug. “It’s possible there’s an accumulation of bone beyond where we dug, but in [that] area there’s not another scrap of bone. We spent a week and a half. I had 10 guys digging there—nothing. Which surprised us all.”
    The quarry known as Jon’s Birthday Site, which they next turned to, proved more productive. “A goldmine,” Josh says. “It may end up being a world-class locality. The diversity of taxa—the number of different types of critters—is huge, just enormous, and their preservation is the best we’re seeing anywhere in the [Bahariya] Formation.” (One find, still in the preliminary stages of being analyzed, would be “bigger than Paralititan” in scientific significance, Josh says—if it pans out.)
    Exactly how the fossils happened to accumulate in that location is still unclear. “We’re all sort of scratching our heads in disbelief at the preservation and why they’re all there.”
    The fossils are in “really, really hard sandstone,” he adds, which made excavation more difficult than expected. “We thought we would go in and take the place apart this year, and that didn’t happen—as always.”
    The team had more success in working its own sites than in rediscovering more of Stromer’s old quarries. For example, a quarry they had speculated was the type locality for Carcharodontosaurus, turned out not to be. “We thought we had found the quarry based on where we thought it was in the oasis, but it turns out we weren’t where we thought we were.” And some quarries initially thought to date from Stromer’s time may actually be from later German expeditions hunting not for dinosaurs but fossil fishes, says Josh. At this point, “we’re not one hundred percent sure we have any of his original quarries, as he didn’t mark them well.” He estimates that three of the “refound” quarries are probably Stromer’s. In terms of specimens, they are certain only that some spinosaurus material was found. Among the key finds this year—besides the tantalizing possibility Josh will only hint at—was a possible partial skeleton of a large theropod, perhaps one of Stromer’s, and a couple of other new non-dinosaur species.
    Overall, in terms of the amount of material uncovered, “it wasn’t anything like what we had last year,” says Josh, “but we got better at looking for stuff this year. The quality of the stuff we’re producing was better, so I think we’ll actually keep a lot more.”
    Three seasons remain on the original contract with the Egyptian authorities to excavate in the Oasis. This is probably the last year that all the participants will be in Philadelphia, however, as Josh Smith and Jen Smith are both scheduled to receive their Ph.D’s by this summer and will likely move on to jobs in academe elsewhere. In early May, with the final revisions on the Science paper complete, in between working on finishing his dissertation and discussing the best timing for a grant proposal seeking “major funding” to support future field seasons at Bahariya (another sequel not yet in the works), Josh reflects on what have been two extraordinary years in the life of a young scientist.
    “Everything is going pretty much perfectly. I think the two seasons have been a resounding success—especially when you consider that we’ve only been on the ground in Bahariya, if we’re honest with ourselves, for nine weeks. We’ve done nine weeks of work, and I can count eight papers that we can write. That’s about a paper a week,” he says. “We’ve been blindingly fortunate so far. I’m waiting for when the [other] shoe’s going to drop, and everything goes to hell.”


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