No one knows what brought the huge animal down. The life of a dinosaur had no shortage of perils. Even a dinosaur this big—more than 80 feet long and weighing perhaps 65 to 70 tons—was not immune. Something killed it: disease, injury, attack, possibly just old age. At some point its knees buckled and it dropped to the ground with a seismic thud, or perhaps a massive splash. It was almost certainly still alive at that moment—critically injured or racked with illness, perhaps, but still alive. Too weak to lift its head above the incoming tide, it may have drowned. It may have expired quietly, alone. It may have been surrounded by its fellow creatures, in much the same way elephants will gather around a stricken member of their herd. It may have been surrounded by far less sympathetic company. A predator, perhaps its attacker. Maybe more than one. The scent of death travels far. Ever opportunists, the predators may have begun dismembering the great animal while it was still struggling, still clinging to life.
Eventually the beast lost its battle against death. Almost immediately thereafter, possibly even before, when they knew it was safe to approach, the scavengers arrived—by land and air, even water—and began tearing apart the carcass. Soft tissue left behind by the larger scavengers was consumed by smaller ones, insects and bacteria, gradually decom posing into the soil or water beneath. The dead sustain the living: conservation of energy and matter.
In time, all that was left were the beast's great bones, scattered now, no longer part of an intact skeleton. Mud and sand drifting in and out on the tide collected around its remains. The process was so gentle that it did not disturb the bones much and merely buried them.
Bones are remarkably good at providing evidence of trouble, in both dinosaurs and humans. Bones preserve the signs of fractures and breaks even after they heal because the new material that fills in the cracks, called callus, is structurally different from the original. And even after new bone cells replace the callus, traces of the injury often remain. Disease can deform bones as well, twisting them, causing abnormal growths or altering their density or porosity. And the scars of tooth marks remain on bone even after predator and prey have been dead for tens of millions of years.
But over those millions of years, the bones can change. Very gradually, minerals dissolved in water percolating through the soil—silicate, calcium carbonate, iron oxide, calcium sulfate, and others—can permeate the porous structure of bone, filling in around and in some cases actually replacing the organic material of which the bone is composed. In the case of this particular dinosaur, the result of thousands of years of this exquisitely slow process was a certain kind of immortality for the fallen giant. It had become a fossil.
And that would normally be the end of the story. But in this case, it was just the beginning. On May 31, 2001, at a press conference in Philadelphia, the great beast was resurrected.
That same day, the June 1 issue of the prestigious magazine Science was released. In it was an article formally describing "A Giant Sauropod Dinosaur from an Upper Cretaceous Mangrove Deposit in Egypt."The article announced, in the typically arid prose of such journals:
We describe a giant titanosaurid sauropod dinosaur discovered in coastal deposits in the Upper Cretaceous Bahariya Formation of
Egypt, a unit that has produced three Tyrannosaurus-sized theropods and numerous other vertebrate taxa. Paralititan stromeri is the first tetrapod reported from Bahariya since 1935. Its 1.69-meter-long [about 66.5 inches] humerus is longer than any known Cretaceous sauropod. The autochthonous scavenged skeleton was preserved in mangrove deposits, raising the possibility that titanosaurids and their predators habitually entered such environments.1
At the press conference, held on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Ann Druyan, founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, stepped to the microphone before a large group of reporters and television cameras. To her left were five young scientists. She introduced the young man closest to her and he came to the microphone.
Josh Smith, a Penn doctoral candidate in paleontology, expressed his surprise at the number of reporters present and thanked them for coming. Then he told them a story. It was the story of a long forgotten German explorer and scientist who, almost a century earlier, had made not one but several astonishing dinosaur discoveries in, of all places, the Sahara Desert. It was a story about how the scientist lost them, and much more besides, through a series of crushingly tragic events.
It was also the story of a group of young contemporary scientists who believed they could resurrect the German's legacy and, at the same time, make a significant contribution to the world's understanding of what the planet looked like nearly a hundred million years ago.
In the Western Desert of Egypt in the winter of2000, the group had succeeded, beyond their wildest imaginings, at both.
Smith introduced the other members of the Bahariya Dinosaur Project team: fellow paleontology doctoral student Matthew Lamanna and geology doctoral student Jennifer Smith, both from the University of Pennsylvania; Drexel University professor of engineering geology Kenneth Lacovara; and Jason Poole, head of the fossil preparation laboratory at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. Smith also introduced two Penn faculty advisers who participated in the expedition: Dr. Robert Giegengack, experienced Egypt hand and chair of the De partment of Earth and Environmental Science; and from the School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Peter Dodson, one of America's best-regarded vertebrate paleontologists.
Smith thanked three members of the team who were not present but whose participation had been critical to the success of the expedition: their Egyptian collaborators Yousry Attia, geologist and curator of the Egyptian Geological Museum, and Medhat Said Abdelghani and Yassir Abdelrazik, members of the museum's paleontology staff.
Between the group and the audience was a long, heavily reinforced table with a large object covered by a plain white sheet. Smith and Jason Poole stepped up to the table, removed the sheet, and revealed a reddish-brown dinosaur bone of stunning immensity. A murmur went around the room; camera lenses zoomed. Then came the questions. The press conference went into overtime. But one question in particular captured the moment:
"So give us an idea of how big this animal was, say, compared to an elephant."
Matt Lamanna stepped to the microphone, laughing, and said: "This animal was as big as an entire herd of elephants."
The next day this lost dinosaur from Egypt was front-page news around the world. Josh Smith and Matt Lamanna would spend the next three weeks on the phone and in radio and television studios describing the great beast and the expedition that discovered it.
But as is so often the case, the media missed entirely the fact that the dinosaur, as big as it was, was only a small part of the story of the Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt.
This is the whole story.
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