Fossil Discoveries in Niger with Dr. Ralf Kosma

“I often wrapped wet clothes around my head in order to cool my brain during digging.”

Dr. Ralf Kosma, curator of paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany, was part of an international team that excavated fossils in Niger during the late 2000s.

“[T]he heat was incredible,” he wrote in an email, “especially in April/May. Usually I can stand the heat, and I did in Niger, but many colleagues in our team (both German and Nigerien) became ill as a result of the horrifying heat.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

Much of the country—particularly in the northern region, which is where Dr. Kosma and team excavated–is in the Sahara desert.  In an area devoid of many trees (hence, shade), where temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and where water is in short supply, heat is a crucial concern.

Word of a large dinosaur bone traveled from Niger to Germany by way of Edgar Sommer, both a friend of State Museum of Natural History Director Dr. Ulrich Joger and someone with ties to an educational organization in Niger.

Paleontologists from the museum worked together with those from the local Aderbissinat community: a people comprised—like the country (and the continent!) entire—of various cultures.  Among those cultures are the Tuareg, the Hausa, and the Fulani people.

“This was organized,” Dr. Kosma wrote, describing who they hired from the community, “by Ahmad Bahani, our local Tuareg partner, and Mohammed Echika, Tuareg Chief and Mayor of the village Tadibene…”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Back row from left to right: Sidi Bahani, Dr. Ralf Kosma (Braunschweig), Abdul Khader, Achim Ritter (Braunschweig, technican and artist), Prof. Dr. Ulrich Joger (Director of our museum, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany), Hanna Joger (daughter of Ulrich Joger) from Darmstadt, Germany, Jannis Joger (with colorful turban; son of Ulrich Joger from Darmstadt, Germany), Fritz J. Krüger (Braunschweig, paleontological volunteer of the SNHM), Michel Rabe (with hat, Braunschweig, also museum volunteer), Azziz Bahani.

Front row from left to right: Moussa, Aghali, Abdul Raman, Mohammed, Dr. Alexander Mudroch (Paleontologist, Hannover, Germany), Jörg Faust (camera assistant, from Berlin)

Picture was taken in spring 2007 in Aderbissinat at our field camp at the Spinophorosaurus site.

Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Proud Tuareg camel riders celebrating the “Festival of Salt” in Agadez, 2007. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

They camped in the field—using a campfire to cook food, some of it local, some of it brought with them in tins from Germany.  Along with the heat, they dealt with several sandstorms.

“It was peeling our skin. One was really hard and we took shelter in our laboratory truck.”

But they were also excavating at a time when civil war broke out within the country.

“We were,” he wrote, “protected by the army and by Mayor Mohammed Echika.”

 

“We encountered snakes, scorpions, a monitor lizard, geckoes, skinks and a variety of toads, birds and mammals. Due to our director being a herpetologist we were well prepared against bites of venomous snakes. At night we went snake hunting with [flashlights].” – Dr. Ralf Kosma.  Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Between 2005 and 2008, the team excavated several places near Aderbissinat.  Petrified wood fossils of Taxodioideae amongst other conifers, fossil crocodile teeth, and ganoid fish scales indicate that the arid area of today was actually swampy and wet in the Jurassic.  Perhaps their most exciting finds: a partial sauropod skeleton and 5 individual theropod trackways.

Excavation of the sauropod took place in 2007; removal of the fossil occurred in 2008, when it was taken to the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig. Now on permanent display in its dinosaur hall, the partial sauropod is 8 meters long: 37 caudal vertebrae and 5 fused sacral vertebrae.

Specimen 1 from Spinophorosaurus nigerensis [a different fossil and species from the one discussed in this blog], directly after excavating in November 2006. The specimen was almost completely articulated. This specimen was later taken by a Spanish team and brought to the paleontological museum of Elche in the vicinity of Alicante in Spain. The person on the picture is Ahmed Bahani, our Tuareg coordinator. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Fossilized tree trunk on top of the cliffs of Tiguidit. 2008. Probably Cretaceous. (Attention! If you thought this is a sauropod vertebrae – it is not!) Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Further study by Dr. Emanuel Tschopp and team indicates the sauropod might be Jobaria tiguidensis.  Research undertaken by Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz and Patrick Asbach reveals that the poor Jobaria may have suffered from a painful bone pathology.

There is a debate—since soft-tissues rarely fossilize—about what existed between vertebrae in dinosaurs.  What connected the bones, of what did that connection consist, and how exactly did it make that connection to the bone?  We don’t know.  But research gives us insightful clues.

Dr. Witzmann and team, in their 2016 paper (Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger), looked to the work of Steve Salisbury and Eberhard Frey.  Comparing extant and extinct crocodile vertebrae with that of mammalian vertebrae, they found evidence pointing to synovial joints in dinosaurs.  This is in direct contrast to the discovertebral junctions known in mammals. The two are shaped differently, enable different range of movement within the joints, and are comprised of different substances.

Ultimately, we don’t know for certain whether dinosaurs had a discovertebral junction or whether they had synovial joints. This is important because these distinctions impact our understanding of the Nigerien sauropod’s pathology.

A 1978 paper by Resnick and Niwayama suggests subchondral cysts near synovial joints result in the same pathology as “Schmorl’s nodes,” a pathology that presents as holes or lesions in the bone. This is particularly interesting, as, thus far, only extant mammals (animals with discovertebral junctions) have exhibited traces of Schmorl’s nodes. (Only one case of possible Schmorl’s nodes in a reptile was published in 2001.)

Schmorl’s Nodes from Wikipedia credit: By J. Lengerke 22:47, 12. Jan. 2010 (CET) (Praxis Dr. Jochen Lengerke) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

CT scanning provided further insight into the sauropod vertebrae.  While the team wondered whether the holes might be the work of ancient insects, this was discounted because there are no traces of insect mandibles and the holes are too large.  As the vertebrae were articulated when they were discovered, it was determined the space was too small for tiny mammals to make any impact postmortem.  The team therefore suggests that the lesions on the sauropod vertebrae are subchondral cysts, perhaps an analog to Schmorl’s nodes.

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Preparing the ribs of Spinophorosaurus nigerensis, specimen 2, for transportation in spring 2007. Aderbissinat. Constructing plaster jackets. Persons from left to right: Tuareg helper Aghali, our museum volonteer Fritz J. Krüger (from Braunschweig, Germany), and me (Dr. Ralf Kosma, Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

The fossil footprints—120 tracks thus far, all of which remain in-situ in Niger—were discovered in 2007 and 2008.  Researchers from the Archaeological Institute of the University Abdou Moumouni (Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Niamey) and paleontologists from the German Museum worked together to both find and study them (Alexander Mudroch, Ute Richter, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Oumarou Idé, Abdoulaye Maga in their 2011 paper: Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa).

Casts and molds were taken of the tracks, of which, it was determined there are 5 distinct trackways.  Their unique shape gave rise to a new ichnotaxon: Paravipus didactyloides.

Although found in an area believed to be by a stream or lake during the Jurassic, the footprints are not believed to be swim traces.  Nothing in the sediment supports this.

There is, however, indication that two individual dinosaurs walked together at one point.  The size and shape of the footprints suggest those dinosaurs were theropods, possibly Deinonychus.

Figure 2. Map of dinosaur localities in the vicinity of Agadez, Rep. Niger. Generated with GoogleEarth MapMaker Utility 2009. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642.g002
Taking casts of the perfectly preserved Paravipus didactyloides trackways. About 1 mile SE of the Spinophorosaurus site, Aderbissinat. These tracks were later scientifically described in PlosOne by our team. They were caused by rather large dromaeosaurids (“raptors”). The tracks are numerous, large, perfectly preserved, the first proof for this group from rocks as old als middle Jurassic and, last but not least, the first proof for this group in subsaharan Africa. The person with hat is Michel Rabe, volunteer at our museum. The three guys to the right are Tuareg and Hausa helpers. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

After removing the silicone mould of the Paravipus tracks. Michel Rabe (with hat) and me (with turban). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

In 2009, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig opened “Projekt Dino,” an exhibition highlighting dinosaurs from West Africa.

“It was open to public for 4 months until March 2010, as far as I remember,” wrote Dr. Kosma. “Afterwards Spinophorosaurus [nigerensis—another sauropod from Niger] and Jobaria [tiguidensis] were moved to our main building.  Since 2010, the Niger-story is represented in our permanent exhibition…[W]e dedicated a complete hall–our dinosaur hall–to that topic.  Visitors of all ages are very fascinated by these skeletons. They are a central point of interest and strongly help the understanding of Earth history…Many school classes come here to learn about the giants of the Mesozoic.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

The acknowledgments at the end of “Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger” state: “We also thank the people of Aderbissinat, Niger, for all the support and help they have offered us during our field campaigns.”

At the beginning of “Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa,” it is noted that in exchange for paleontological work and recovery of fossils, part of the funds donated for the research were given toward building a local school, providing food for the children and 20,000 school books.

In corresponding with Dr. Kosma, one of his comments struck a personal chord with me:

“We all miss Niger very much: the country, the people, the desert, and would like to go there again digging for dinosaurs. We are still in contact with the local people, and they tell us the situation of the civil war is getting better right now.”

 

 

References:

  1. Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce M. Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz & Patrick Asbach (2016) Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36:2, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2016.1080719
  2. Mudroch A, Richter U, Joger U, Kosma R, Idé O, Maga A (2011) Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14642. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642
  3. Salisbury, S, and E. Frey.  2001. A biomechanical transformation model for the evolution of semi-spheroidal articulations between adjoining vertebral bodies in crocodilians; pp. 85 – 134 in G. C. Grigg, F. Seebacher, and C. E. Franklin (eds.), Crocodilian Biology and Evolution. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Chipping Norton, England.

 

An absolutely tremendous and heartfelt thank you to Dr. Ralf Kosma, who was not only very generous with the pictures he provided of his experiences, but with his help and patience with this blog.  It took much longer to write this post than normal; he was exceedingly kind throughout the process.

An equally heartfelt thank you to Dr. Florian Witzmann, who not only put me in touch with Dr. Kosma, but helped clarify some points on his research.

A special thank you to Dr. Emanuel Tschopp who kindly confirmed the species of sauropod to be Jobaria tiguidensis (so far!)

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Meet Henry Sharpe – Paleoartist, Future Paleontologist

In one painting, a Daspletosaurus is rubbing its snout against tree bark as a way to clean its skin after eating.  In another, a small velicoraptor simply investigates a much larger hadrosauroid (Plesiohadros djadokhtaensis).  Henry Sharpe focuses his artistic lens a little differently than other paleoartists might; shifting the view from one of naked aggression and survival to one of (potential) everyday moments in prehistoric existence.

These moments, often gentle–evocative of the behavior of extant animals, behavior we may readily recognize and understand—and absent drama, make his artwork perhaps that much more realistic.


 

Screenshots of artwork by Henry Sharpe from his website

He bases them all on the latest research, keeping up with the most current scientific papers.  He also extrapolates known behavior of creatures alive today and applies it to similar extinct animals, an educated guess rather than a flight of pure imaginative fancy.  And in that way, he prompts the viewer to think and question: could this be how that animal truly behaved?  Is this how a snapshot in time might have looked at that moment for those animals?  How much do we know about that animal?  What else do we have yet to discover?

Or such are the thoughts that any good paleoart encourages within me. Good paleoart—in my opinion—invites more questions, inspires more interest, encourages more research.  Because that art opens doors that I didn’t realize were there. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of animals many of us yearn so deeply to actually know and see and understand. Paleontological research is a huge step in that process; paleoart is its creative partner.

Getting that art right—or as much as we can possibly make it ‘right’ in our relatively limited knowledge so far—is extremely important.*

“So much of palaeoart involves dinosaurs roaring and trying to kill each other,” Henry explained in an email, “which is unfortunate because not only are we pretty sure most of them didn’t roar, but also because nature isn’t like that. So much of the lives of modern animals are not represented in palaeoart: things like drinking, sleeping, patrolling, caring for young, resting, etc.

“In fact, when you look at many modern predators, not only does hunting for prey take up a vast minority of time, but most hunting attempts are unsuccessful.  I would love to see a piece showing a beaten and bruised Allosaurus looking longingly in the distance as its Camptosaurus quarry escapes.

“There are also a great deal of unusual behaviours unique to certain animal groups that are pretty likely for dinosaurs. Case in point is my Daspletosaurus, which is based on Komodo Dragons (the largest living lizards in the world, and the largest reptiles with lips, which were likely features for Tyrannosaurs like Daspletosaurus). Komodos, despite their filthy and disgusting reputation, are actually remarkably clean animals, and have been observed cleaning their muzzles of blood on bits of foliage after feeding, and I translated this to Daspletosaurus.”

image of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), photo: C.E. Seo from Getty Images

Henry doesn’t just read about paleontology: he is a frequent visitor at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, discussing paleontology with its experts and volunteering at their Kids’ Camp.  He is a recently published author with a scientific article in Earth Archives and other articles in the works related to Canada’s 150th year anniversary.  He writes about paleontology on his blog; he posts his artwork on his website.

It is very easy to forget that Henry Sharpe is 15 years old.

This couldn’t have been clearer when, after asking him by phone if he sells any of his art, he replied, “I don’t really get any requests now mostly because I haven’t really been around that long to advertise it.”

“But,” he continued, “down the road, I hope I can.”

His passion for art and science seem marvelously balanced by his own thoughtful sensitivity to the world around him, an awareness of the opportunities he’s had in life, a certain graciousness, and a refreshing lack of arrogance despite his considerable talent and intelligence.

When I expressed amazement at his knowledge, his humble response was, “I wouldn’t say I have the greatest breadth of knowledge, as I usually overlook obvious mistakes trying to get the rest of the painting right. For instance, in one piece I spent so much time working on the body shapes of the three protagonists (a mosasaur and two elasmosaurids) that I failed to check whether or not they would have had external ear openings (turns out they didn’t, which I found out a few months later)!”

Screenshot of artwork from his website

 

He credits his family for prompting his interests.  The members of his family, he wrote, “are all very much interested in science, nature, and design. They’ve also impressed the importance of knowing what you’re talking about, especially in preparation for friendly debates around the dining room table. School has also been pretty helpful, not only in its stress on locating and interpreting technical articles, but also in the expansive archive of papers the library provides (I’m pretty lucky with that).”

“They’ve always kind of encouraged critical thinking and exploring careers in science,” he continued by phone when I asked if they shared his love of art and paleontology.  “Both of my parents are kind of illustrators in their own right.  My dad is a scientific illustrator.  My mom is an interior designer, so I kind of get the technical artistic kind of thing from them.

“But, yeah, I think a lot of it is just me dragging them around to places.”

It seems that he stands alone in his passion at school, as well.

“My school is kind of half divided among the kids who want to go into the kind of more money-making fields and kids who want to go into science.  And among those, there are the few kids who want to go into biology.  And among them, there’s me, who wants to do paleontology!”

Which prompted me to ask if his friends love dinosaurs they way he does.

“[I]n terms of dinosaurs,” he replied, “no, I’m completely alone.”

He added, “I tried to start a dinosaur club and,” his emphasis here was tinged with humour, “it failed SPECTACULARLY.”

“The truth about the digital stuff that I do, most of it is just practice. There’s a great arts program at my school, but it’s kind of evenly distributed between sculpting and drawing and film studies.  So, a lot of the stuff that I’ve been doing on the computer is a lot of just me doodling away for hours on end.”

“My preferred medium is probably still pencil, for the sole reason that I can doodle inconspicuously in class when things get slow.”

This made me smile when we discussed this by phone, as I could certainly relate, thinking back to when I was in school. (How often had my friends and I done the same thing for the same reason!)

“It’s easy to pretend you’re writing something down when you have a pencil and a piece of paper, when in reality you’re just drawing a dinosaur.

“[T]his year we had a new teacher and on the first day, they caught me drawing a dinosaur on a sheet of paper.  [The teacher’s response was:] ‘Oh yeah, you’re the dinosaur kid everyone told me about!’”

But regarding his preference for pencil, Henry continued, “It’s also a great portable medium for museums and wildlife. Outside of that, I’d say it’s a tie between acrylic and digital; digital for most research projects as I can change it due to a change in research or noticing something I accidentally ignored earlier in the process, and acrylic for more landscapes, although space and time have been an issue for this.”

Screenshot of a drawing from his website

 

“In terms of dinosaurs, I gotta say coelurosaurs are my favourite, mostly because their feathers are somewhat easier to paint than scales. Besides them, I would love to be able to study spinosaurs; I’ve been smitten with them since seeing ‘Jurassic Park 3’,” he wrote in an email.

“Outside of dinosaurs, my biggest love is mosasaurs, which despite extensive media coverage still don’t really have the palaeontological recognition that other marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs do. There’s so much about them that no one has really explored, and I am looking forward to being able to study them in university.

“In terms of other interests, I’ve always sort of had a fascination for the arthropods of the Cambrian, Ordovician, and Carboniferous (thanks mostly to Nigel Marven in Prehistoric Park), and I would given the opportunity love to do some research regarding the pleistocene faunas of Canada.

“The biggest challenge I find is probably in the composition stage. There is a great deal of palaeoart which completely disregards aesthetics overall and opts for a more ‘dinosaur with an environment in the background’ look. There are many amazing paleoartists however that master composition and placement, ensuring that dinosaurs look not only a part of their environment, but are interacting with it as well.”

Examples he gave of such artists include James Gurney, Douglas Henderson, Danielle Dufault and Julius Csotonyi.

Partial screenshot of a beautiful painting on his website; the caption reads “Fanart based on the survival game “Saurian”, to be released in early 2017. Three Ornithomimids explore a dust hollow in a Hell Creek forest, with one speculatively (though plausibly) bathing in it, much like modern birds.”

 

“This is something that I’ve been trying to work on as I progress, but I still have a long way to go. The biggest reward is being done, and being able to look at the finished piece without cringing. My finishing process usually involves me getting too tired with the piece to try adding more, so if that matches up with me feeling good about it, it’s pretty great!”

Henry attributes two things for prompting his interest in paleontology: the movie “Jurassic Park” and the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM).

“While in ‘Jurassic Park’ I could see real dinosaurs from afar, I was always kind of fascinated with how they worked from the inside, and the ROM gave me an inside look at them, while also allowing me to get up close and personal with them. The ROM was all the cooler to me when I realized that the dinosaurs of JP weren’t all that accurate anymore, and I think the concept that we knew actually very little about dinosaurs made me want to try to learn as much as I could.”

David Evans is a really great guy,” he continued. “He’s really into scientific communications.  He’s been really easy-going about me going in and trying to learn as much as I can. I’ve probably been a bit–” Here he paused as if trying to find the right word, and then said: “annoying at parts, but he’s put up with it, which is really great.”

Henry will be attending the next Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Calgary this summer. I recommend striking up a conversation with him if you go!

And be sure to keep an eye on him: there are exciting developments in his near future!

*****

*This statement is not intended to discredit or dismiss the increasingly ENORMOUS body of paleontological knowledge that we have so far.  It is, however, meant to honestly reflect the limitations of that knowledge at this point in time.

 

An enormous and heartfelt THANK YOU to Henry Sharpe for his correspondence, his time speaking with me by phone, and the very generous use of his artwork on this blog!  It was a tremendous pleasure connecting with him!  I have no doubt he will make a great impact on the future of both paleoart and paleontology!

 

  1. Henry Sharpe’s blog: https://bonesharpesite.wordpress.com
  2. Henry Sharpe’s website/artwork: http://henrysharpe.weebly.com
  3. On Twitter: @bone_sharpe
  4. How pug-faced dinosaurs conquered Gondwana, Henry Sharpe, Earth Archives
  5. Get some of Henry’s artwork here at Studio 252MYA: https://252mya.com/collections/shop/henry-sharpe
  6. Manitoba’s marine monsters, Henry Sharpe, Earth Archives

Screenshot of artwork from his website