Postscript: Niger – A Personal Note

Usually when I write about paleontology, I am doing so in the abstract: not only am I not involved in the research itself, I am almost always describing fossils from locations to which I’ve never been.  This is not the case with the previous post. Niger was my home for a couple of years in the mid 1990s.  When Dr. Ralf Kosma described some of the experiences he and his colleagues had, when he wrote of the friends he made, the people with whom he worked, the landscape in which they dug, his memories evoked my own.

Embed from Getty Images

Granted, our experiences were in two very different parts of the country. The less-populated, harsher environment of northern Niger is in direct contrast to its southern more hospitable regions. Whereas Dr. Kosma and team were in the desert, I lived on the very border of Niger and Nigeria: an area comprised of millet fields as far as the eye can see, considerably more trees, and a glorious jewel of water on the outskirts of town during the rainy season.  I didn’t camp at night. I lived in a large mud-brick enclosure that held two little homes (one for, Ai, my Nigerien host; one for me and my dog), our own artisan well, and fledgling mango and lemon trees.

Did I know of Paul Sereno at that time? I can’t remember. I was aware of recent paleontological digs; one of my Nigerien friends had been involved in at least one of them.   I knew of the road that lead north to Agadez from the nearest city—a road my friend took to go to those excavations–and I often wished I could travel its path.*

(*Due to increased internal conflict, US citizens were prohibited from traveling north while I was there.  This is why I never went to the areas visited by Dr. Kosma and his colleagues.  That edict, however, did nothing whatsoever to prevent my US friends and I from traveling slightly north to participate in a Fulani festival.)

The village in which I lived was largely home to people within the Hausa culture. In a world of seemingly homogenous natural color—mud-brick walls with mud-brick homes, the deep sand upon which the village was founded, the sandy expanse surrounding the village—people, in their brightly colored attire, became the flowers that blossomed across the landscape.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

 

My friends were predominantly Muslim.  They were farmers, herders, teachers, nurses, chiefs, veterinarians, and merchants.  They were mothers and fathers.  Some of my friends’ children would sing my name and then laugh when I chased them each morning on my way to work at the local health clinic. Often at night, Ai—the woman with whom I lived—would lead me through the darkness—sandy paths between homes and their enclosures–to visit neighbors. We would sit around the fire; they would talk, I would listen. Night was usually blissfully chilly, a great contrast to the heat of the day.

Embed from Getty Images

This picture from Getty Images shows a young girl pounding grain.  Women all over West Africa (not just in Niger) pound grain (ie: millet, wheat, etc) in these large wooden basins to make flour. It is extremely difficult work.  My friends would often pound together, each one with their own large wooden pounder–clapping between pounds and singing.  What was obvious work became a choreographed work of art.

Two years is hardly enough time to become an expert on a country, its diverse cultures, its language, its wonders and its struggles.  It was certainly not enough time for me to speak Hausa with any kind of intelligence.  That my friends embraced me as they did, when I could not communicate as I can in my native tongue, makes me love them that much more.

Embed from Getty Images

A huge herd of these cows passed by Ai’s and my door each morning, taken out to graze by local herders.

And while there are so many stories I could share about my experiences there, I want to share only one.

It was—like most days—absolutely beautiful. On the very outskirts of town, an enormous expanse of land transformed into a lake during the rainy season.   Flocks of white birds (herons, maybe? Storks?) dotted the trees like blossoms.  I needed to be near water that particular day, so I decided to go for a walk.

One was never alone for long in that village, and such was the case soon after I left my house.  Within moments, I was joined by several little 5 -7-year-old boys, one of the youngest slipping his hand into mine. Smiling, I grasped his hand.  We walked together, surrounded by the others who talked and ran around and ahead of us.

Not long afterwards, there was a commotion in the bushes behind us—a loud crashing through the vegetation—the branches and thorns so thick they hid whatever moved beneath them.  We could hear the loud whoops and cries of young men. I saw some of them running into and around the bushes, chasing something with sticks and machetes.

Those two things alarmed me: whatever it was they pursued required several people to catch it AND they needed weapons.

“SNAKE!” one of the young boys declared, confirming my worst fear, because what else could it be? I knew of nothing else that dangerous, that low to the ground.

With eager abandon, the troupe of little boys started running toward the action, disregarding any protest on my part to stay away.  My little friend looked up at me, worry and fear in his eyes, looking to me for guidance. I’m pretty sure I mirrored that fear, but I held his hand tighter in comfort. Neither of us moved.  I wasn’t sure where to go.  The only way back to the safety of the village was past the commotion.   On one side of us was the lake (a known refuge for guinea worm and other parasites); on the other was dense bush (with who knows what beneath it).

I don’t remember how long we stood there, but eventually the chase ended—a group of young men and their weapons surrounding something on the path up ahead.  Whatever it was wasn’t moving, so I decided it was our chance to get out of there.

We approached them cautiously. I watched the dark shape for any sign of movement, ready to run the other way (carrying my little friend if necessary) at a moment’s notice.

My god, that is a big snake, I thought, as we got closer. Walking even faster, we dashed past the group toward safety, my eyes keeping the creature in sight.  With what I realized later was wonder, I found I didn’t recognize what the men had caught, what species now lay dead at their feet.  Part lizard, part dragon, part alligator, I remember thinking.  This was before the internet.  I had little idea, outside of megafauna and snakes, what Nigerien wildlife contained.  What I knew of lizards in the US—much less the world–was small. What lay there matched nothing I had ever seen before.

Embed from Getty Images

I’m not sure what species of monitor lizard lived in the area; internet searches tell me there is a West African monitor lizard–which is not pictured here in this image from Getty Images.  This is a Nile monitor lizard.

Why tell this story? I’m not sure.  It’s fairly innocuous in a collection of stories that mean much more to me and remain closer to my heart.  But writing about Niger in the previous post prompts me to write about it; I want people to know about this place I love, even if briefly.  Two years in paleontology is negligible.  That time-span in my life, however, was significant, and its impact on me and who I am today cannot be dismissed.  I did not make an impact on Niger, but Niger had a profound impact on me.

When Dr. Kosma wrote of missing the people of Niger, my heart responds, ‘Me, too.’

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!)