Oct. 13, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 4

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    Digging up dinosaurs: Triumphs, travails for Sereno ..

    When Paul Sereno, Associate Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, set off on his most recent dinosaur-fossil hunt to Niger, he thought he had prepared for everything. Provisioned with more than a ton of dehydrated food, six Land Rovers and every conceivable digging tool, he and a team of 12 men and women embarked on a 2,500-mile trek across mostly open desert to prospect a rich bed of dinosaur fossils on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.

    On Sept. 1, 1993, the expedition team, which included several Chicago graduate and undergraduate students, departed from London, bound for a four-month trip to northern Africa. A ferry to Calais, a drive across France, another ferry to Algiers, and then a desert trek -- including 500 miles without roads -- would bring them to Niger and a bountiful graveyard of dinosaur skeletons.

    When Sereno cut his wrist hauling one of the Land Rovers from a collapsed roadbed in Algeria, team member Carol Abraczinkas, a graphic artist working for Sereno, was ready with needle and thread. In anticipation of such an occurrence, Abraczinkas had practiced giving stitches -- on a pig's foot from the grocery store -- before the trip.

    When four of the vehicles became mired in the shifting sands of the Dunes of Laoni, expedition members hauled out sand ladders -- six-foot-long, perforated metal sheets -- to give the truck tires stability and traction. Four hours later, the six trucks were safely across the mile-long stretch of desert, an area littered with the clean-picked metal carcasses of not-so-lucky predecessors.

    When temperatures reached 130 degrees, team members were prepared -- with sun-reducing headgear, well-ventilated clothing, sun block and plenty of drinking water.

    To make the long trek across barren desert, the team carted a reserve supply of water and fuel in cans strapped to the vehicles' roofs.

    The team made it to Agadez, Niger, on Sept. 28, right on schedule. With the trip across the desert behind them, Sereno thought the greatest hurdles had been surmounted. He did not know then of the obstacles ahead.

    Despite three years of planning for every emergency and long hours spent amassing funding, assembling the team, purchasing food and equipment and planning an itinerary, Sereno and his team were brought to a standstill in Agadez by a triple punch of medical and bureaucratic crises. Three weeks after reaching the town, the team was still there. A team member lay bedridden with strep throat, not responding to the antibiotics the team carried for just such an emergency. An Air France strike prevented much-needed cash from reaching the team. And a key document that would allow Sereno and his team to begin fieldwork had so far been held up by a bureaucratic tangle.

    While the rest of the team waited in Agadez, Sereno passed the time in Niamey, the capital of Niger, pressing for the crucial fieldwork document. He and two other team members had driven 600 miles south to the capital to present their case in person. Sereno had tried for months before the trip to secure the papers but had not been completely successful. The uncertain political climate that followed two years of civil unrest meant that a series of permissions and approvals were required. Some officials feared that the team might become a target for bandits.

    "The worst part was waiting," Sereno said. "It was like one of those imagined tortures -- each minute was like an hour, each hour a day, each day a week. It was excruciating."

    So much time was lost that Sereno began to wonder if the team had enough time left to do the work it had set out to do. Only one month remained of the two that had been set aside for working in the field.

    "I realized how crazy the circumstance was, that we had done all these years of planning and preparation, and there was nothing more we could do. The expedition was slipping away," Sereno said. "Eventually, there was no room to maneuver, and team morale was low. We couldn't go on."

    Sereno drove to where the rest of the team was assembled in Agadez and canceled the expedition. But after he returned to Niamey to arrange for the early departure of some of the team members, the decision to cancel the expedition seemed hasty. A day later, the ill team member began to recover, a courier was secured to bring the much-needed cash from England, and the authorities promised delivery of the final document. Sereno quickly assembled willing team members. "I knew that even one day at the site would be valuable," he said.

    In the following days, the document came through granting the scientists permission to enter the field, and the expedition came back to life. The team set up base camp in the oasis town of In Gall and worked with an armed escort on most days.

    "There had been nothing more depressing than thinking we might have to cross back over the desert with nothing in tow. And there was nothing more exhilarating than actually getting the document and getting into the field," Sereno said.

    "Once we got out into the field, there was so much energy, so much determination," he said. "The team just came together. The amount of work we got done and the degree of cooperation we had for the amount of time we had in the field was truly remarkable."

    Sereno was familiar with the site from a 1990 visit he had made while on an expedition with the British Museum. The British scientists had been looking for fish fossils, but Sereno was following a hunch that there would also be dinosaur bones there -- the exposed rock beds were the right age to contain Cretaceous skeletons.

    During the 1990 trip, Sereno found and excavated a 6-foot femur from a sauropod, a plant-eating behemoth more than 50 feet in length. The site appeared to be studded with pieces of exposed bone -- each potentially a link to a complete skeleton buried beneath the sand.

    On Nov. 4, 10 members of the team -- the others had returned home -- finally reached the dig site, and their patience was rewarded. The 1990 site was, indeed, a graveyard, but Sereno's team prospected for fossils in surrounding terrain. In only three days, they discovered enough new sites that they began excavation in force. Within two weeks they had excavated five tons of fossilized bone -- a near-complete skeleton of a sauropod that had lain buried for 130 million years. Work at another site unearthed the remains of a new theropod, a predatory meat-eater. The theropod find was particularly spectacular -- the bones of the only other Cretaceous theropod ever found on the African continent were destroyed in Germany during World War II.

    With these finds, Sereno's team had begun to fill in a missing chapter in dinosaur evolution -- very little had been known about any of the dinosaurs that roamed the African continent during the Cretaceous period, from 145 million to 65 million years ago.

    The scientific findings from the expedition will be published in the Oct. 14 issue of Science, and the reconstructed skeleton of the theropod will be unveiled at a press conference today at the University's Downtown Center and will be on display for three months at Chicago's Harold Washington Library beginning Tuesday, Oct. 18. The expedition and its discoveries also will be the subject of two PBS programs, both of which will air on WTTW/Channel 11 -- an interactive educational teleconference that will be broadcast live at noon Friday, Oct. 14, and a documentary film on Wednesday, Oct. 19 (see On the Air on this page).

    For the students on the trip, the experience yielded personal as well as paleontological rewards.

    "Beyond the goals of the trip that we accomplished, there are many things that stand out in my mind when I think about what we did," said Gabrielle Lyon, a fourth-year College student currently completing a joint bachelor's- and master's-degree program in history. Lyon, who went on the expedition after taking Sereno's Evolution & Paleobiology course, chronicled the trip in a journal.

    "One of the most amazing things was falling asleep and seeing the stars stretch all the way down to the ground," she said. "And I remember marking the passage of time through the phases of the moon -- realizing it's the second full moon, it's my second month on a brand new continent."

    Lyon said one of the most memorable experiences was getting to know the nomadic Tuareg people who lived near the dig site. Two women, Reisha and Aminatoo, visited almost daily. "We couldn't speak a word of each other's language. We communicated with gestures and sign language. Being able to get across an idea was an incredible thrill!"

    From her stay in Agadez, Lyon had acquired a few phrases in Tamachek, the Tuareg language. She wrote them, phonetically, in her journal. One day she tried to read them back to Reisha and Aminatoo, who had difficulty understanding her pronunciation. But each time they figured out what she said they smiled and then pronounced the words correctly. One phrase set them laughing: "aree-alembata," which means "I have no money."

    "Of all the phrases I'd learned, 'I have no money' was such a ridiculous thing for me to be saying to them," said Lyon. "They laughed and laughed. They have so little, and we have so very much -- so much that we take for granted."

    When the dig was over, and the team was preparing to leave, Lyon communicated to the two women her departure. Reisha pulled a silver ring from her hand -- one of two she always wore -- and handed it to Lyon. "I don't think any gift has ever meant so much to me," Lyon said. "It was such a generous thing for her to do. I almost cried."

    After 29 days in the desert, the team had excavated six tons of dinosaur bones. The return journey was not without its own adventures -- carting six tons of fossils back across the desert provided many challenges -- but on Dec. 15, the team boarded the ferry in Algiers and headed for Marseille.

    "We had a great time that night," Lyon said. "At dinner there was a lot of wine, and we toasted everyone we could think of. We had such a sense of accomplishment. We were headed home, we knew the bones were safe, and despite the problems we had encountered, the expedition had been a success."

    But, in keeping with the rest of the trip, smooth sailing was not in the script. "The next day the Mediterranean was really rough, and nearly everyone was seasick. The whole team was a pale shade of green," she said, laughing.

    The dinosaur party arrived back in Chicago -- tanned and lean -- before Christmas. The bones arrived, flown for free aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris, in early January. They were shipped to the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, where they were cleaned and cast. The reconstructed skeleton, Sereno said, will eventually be put on permanent display in Niger.

    In addition to Sereno, Lyon and Abraczinkas, Chicago team members who participated in the expedition were Catherine Forster, then Research Associate in Organismal Biology & Anatomy; Jeffrey Wilson, a graduate student in Organismal Biology & Anatomy; Richard Blob and Matthew Carrano, graduate students in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology; Dominique Shimizu, a fourth-year College student; and Gregory Alberton (M.D.'94). Hans Larsson, who was then an undergraduate at McGill University, is now a first-year graduate student in Organismal Biology & Anatomy.

    Funding for the expedition was provided by Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, American Airlines, the National Geographic Society, the Women's Board of the University of Chicago and the Eppley Foundation for Research Inc.

    -- Diana Steele