Paleontologist Paul Sereno’s fossil-finding expedition into Africa’s Sahara Desert in 1993 sounds a lot like the plot of an Indiana Jones adventure movie.
With a limited budget, Sereno attempted to lead a team through 1,000 miles of desert, a region plagued by political instability, temperatures of more than 125 degrees, and bands of roving desert pirates. Half of Sereno’s team decided to abandon the expedition.
And if that weren’t enough to make the adventure sound like a Hollywood movie, Sereno fell in love with his future wife, who worked as a scribe for the team, over the course of the expedition.
When Sereno and his team arrived at their destination, a dinosaur graveyard in the country of Niger, they set about uncovering a group of fossils that would help establish Sereno as one of the most widely known paleontologists in the world. Among the finds were Jobaria, a 70-foot-long plant-eating dinosaur from the Cretaceous period, and Afrovenator, the most complete predatory dinosaur from the Cretaceous that has ever been unearthed in Africa.
“It’s the greatest and most challenging expedition I think I will ever lead and accomplish in my life,” Sereno says.
Even though Sereno, a University of Chicago professor and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, maintains that the 1993 fossil-collecting mission was his most difficult, most of his international expeditions have been no walk in the park.
Around the World
In 1988, Sereno traveled to the Ischigualasto badlands, a desert valley in Argentina located in the shadows of the Andes Mountains. Fossils had been found in the region before, but there were no maps depicting where the bones had been discovered. Though he had meager supplies and didn’t speak Spanish, Sereno came back from the trip with the skull and complete skeleton of a meat-eating dinosaur called Herrerasaurus. A second journey to the region yielded the skeleton of the Eoraptor, a 3-foot-long creature that is the world’s most primitive dinosaur.
Sereno says these discoveries transformed how scientists viewed the evolution of dinosaurs. The primitive fossils suggest the creatures were evolving while other animals dominated the world 228 million years ago.
“These are the most complete dinosaurs from the very dawn of the dinosaur era, when they were just a minor component of the fauna alive,” he says. “They weren’t the biggest. They weren’t the most numerous. But they were dinosaurs. It was a presage to the era when they would take over.”
One of Sereno’s biggest finds didn’t happen in the wild, but inside a building in western India. There, in 2001, Sereno helped piece together a collection of fossils found earlier by Suresh Srivastava of the Geological Survey of India and Ashok Sahni of Panjab University.
After assembling a skull from the fragments, they named the new find Rajasaurus.
“That’s really the first predatory dinosaur that has ever been named in India on the basis of skull reconstruction,” Sereno says.
Geography of Fossil-Hunting
Having found dinosaurs on five continents (everywhere except Europe and Antarctica), Sereno says using different kinds of maps has been an essential tool for discovering fossils.
“It’s really a geographic exercise of combining a topographic [map] over a geologic map,” he says. “That identifies the areas that are plausibly accessible and the age of the Earth that will guide you to the hunting grounds.”
The paleontologist, who also discovered the remains of the 40-foot-long crocodile known as SuperCroc, says one of the challenges of leading a team is inspiring others.
“You are out there and can instill in the minds of these students the truth of the matter, which is that this is one of a few chances that you have in life to insert a page in the history books—not read a page for the umpteenth million time, but to insert a page,” he says.
Sereno compares searching for fossils in the field to being an artist. “You see something sticking out and you have to imagine what it is, the part you can’t see,” he says. “Artists do that all the time.”
He admits that though field work can be very exciting, it is only part of being a paleontologist.
“There is really three stages: finding something, actually getting it out and back to a laboratory, and then doing the laboratory work and the ultimate science on it,” Sereno says.
“Science is about facts and evidence without a doubt, but at its core it is convincing other scientists passionately that you are right,” he says. “That you have discovered something. It can be an idea. It can be a fossil. But you have to convince them of its significance and its importance. That’s science.”