Nizar Ibrahim is a modern-day dinosaur hunter, and kind of a rock star in the world of paleontology. A National Geographic Explorer and TED fellow, he's led several expeditions to Africa's Sahara desert, where's he's found significant new dinosaur remains, fossils and flying reptiles. With what he's discovered, Ibrahim has been able to recreate a fairly terrifying, predatory, prehistoric world, the likes of which has no modern-day equivalent. The bonus is, he's able to explain his work to the average alt newsweekly reporter. In his upcoming talk at the Straz (tickets and info here), he'll share his discoveries, as well as the real-time implications for our planet. Over the phone, he gave me a glimpse of what's to come*:
Lisa L. Kirchner: What drew you to work in the Sahara desert?
Nizar Ibrahim: It's remote and exciting... the ultimate frontier. It's one of the most challenging places to work, just rocks and heat and rolling sand dunes. Seemingly timeless. It's also roughly the same size as the United States. It’s challenging working there and not many people go there, so it was in many ways virgin ground, and that to me is more interesting than going to places where everyone has been.
LLK: You reconstructed the area as a riverbed. How?
NI: There were tantalizing clues. Figuring out there were rivers flowing in an ecosystem is not that difficult. The really hard part was reconstructing the entirety of the food web. Those rivers were teaming with life, and they were home to some of the largest creatures our planet has ever seen. Giant flying reptiles, fish the size of cars, giant sawfish, lots of crocs. What was so interesting and fairly frightening to consider, is that a hundred million years ago, this ecosystem was teaming with predators. There were basically giant predators everywhere.
LLK: Was it something like the Amazon?
NI: When you look at the slice of time that's called the present day, it's really pretty insignificant. And so ultimately you have no modern-day equivalent for all of these lost worlds. That’s one of the most exciting things about paleontology, you get to explore these alien worlds. Some creatures are recognizable — the wooly mammoth is basically a hairy elephant. But in the Sahara we find these bizarre flying reptiles. They're not birds, they’re not bats... they had wing spans up to 30 feet. This is the detective work of paleontology. The question you have to ask yourself is, "How could it exist in the past if we don’t have such systems today?" The thing we have to remember, and it’s a humbling thought, is that 99 percent of creatures that have lived on this planet are extinct. A deep time perspective helps, but it’s also frightening. You see patterns that are very worrying.
LLK: How do you even prepare to do "paleontology detective work"?
NI: I studied biology, geology and zoology, and comparative anatomy. But it really is a multidisciplinary effort. You have to have a good understanding of may different areas. But you also work with specialists around the world. I work with geologists in Morocco, and nowadays we also use cutting-edge technology to do reconstructions, and we work with artists. You get wear different hats, and you also have to work with many different specialists, and that’s a lot of fun.
LLK: What does this imply for today's world?
NI: We can model climate change, but the only way to really know, is to travel back in time. Because then we can actually look at climate change. Our planet was a hothouse planet, with extreme temperatures and no ice on the poles. It was a harsh environment in many ways. Yes, climate changes all the time. But when you look at the time scale involved. A deep time perspective helps, because you see long-term patterns that are very worrying. Paleontologists study mass extinctions, where a large scale of plants and animals go extinct. And, we're now seeing the same thing happening today. And it's not volcanic activity, or a meteor. It's really caused by humans. It's won't be the end of our planet, our planet is going to be fine and recover. But we aren’t going to be around. If paleontology has taught us one thing, there’s no species that hang around forever. Sooner or later it’s going to be our turn. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us.
LLK: How did you get the world's coolest job as a National Geographic Explorer?
NI: It’s not something you can apply for. It’s not that you can write to them. They pick you. The best thing you can do is lots of exciting exploration.
LLK: Why do you think you've been so lucky when it comes to discovering dinosaurs?
NI: It can feel like incredible luck, but when you think about it, you’re making your own luck, and it’s a lot of hard work. The key for me was to be persistent and stubborn, and never give up. There will be moments where you feel like giving up, and throwing in the towel, but the trick is to be extremely optimistic. [He then described how he clinched the discovery of Spinosaurus, which hinged on finding some random dude with a mustache (watch it here).] Trying to find him was a crazy idea, but I still tried, and I did bump into him on the very last day of my search. You can say, 'oh, that was luck,' but that lucky moment wouldn't have happened at all if I hadn’t traveled to Morocco looking for this guy.
It’s a mixture of luck and hard work.
*The conversation has been edited for clarity.