March 5, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 11

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    Tons of work ahead

    Chicago team to clean, study dinosaur bones, including new species

    By Diana Steele
    News Office

    Twenty-five tons of dinosaur bones found in Africa's Sahara Desert arrived on campus last week for cleaning and study by a team of students and researchers working under the guidance of paleontologist Paul Sereno, Associate Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy. Sereno led the 18-member team that excavated the dinosaur skeletons from the rock in which they had been buried for more than 100 million years.

    The bones belong to several previously unknown species of dinosaurs and other reptiles.

    Sereno's four-month Saharan expedition left Chicago in September 1997 and returned to campus just after Christmas. The 25 tons of bones the team recovered on the expedition include skeletons of a large sauropod, a plant-eating dinosaur from the Cretaceous period. Sereno, who first recovered a six-foot-long femur of this sauropod on an expedition in 1990, believes this new species grew to a length in excess of 50 feet.

    The bones, packed in plaster and carefully crated for the journey, were trucked to a port in Africa, shipped across the Atlantic, ferried by rail from Newark, N.J., to Chicago, and trucked to campus. They are now stored in the high-bay accelerator building in the Enrico Fermi Institute. The building, which has a 100-ton crane, is the only space on campus large enough and well-enough equipped to house and move the skeletal remains.

    The complete preparation of the dinosaur bones found by Sereno will take place on campus. Bones from Sereno's previous expeditions -- which unearthed the world's most primitive dinosaur, Eoraptor, and one of the world's largest predators, Carcharodontosaurus -- were prepared and cast elsewhere. Sereno's latest find will be prepared and studied in a new facility in the Fermi Institute, adjacent to the high-bay accelerator building.

    The Fermi Institute has a rich history of interdisciplinary scientific research, dating to its founding in 1946. The high-bay accelerator building in the institute once housed the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the 450 MeV synchrocyclotron, built for Enrico Fermi in the late 1940s and operational until 1972. The space adjacent to the high bay that was remodeled as a facility for the dinosaur bones once housed the electrical generators for the synchrocyclotron.

    The accelerator building is now actively used as a staging area for a variety of scientific experiments, largely for the construction of instrumentation for use in high-energy physics and astrophysics experiments. The former are staged at the giant particle accelerators at Fermilab and CERN, the latter have been deployed at various localities around the globe, including the South Pole, or carried into space by the shuttle and high-altitude balloons.

    Sereno's 1997 expedition to Niger was funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Pritzker Foundation and the National Geographic Society. The dinosaur bones and equipment for the expedition were shipped to and from Africa by Rock-It-Cargo, a Chicago-based shipping company that specializes in transporting unusual cargo, including equipment for rock bands, around the world.