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Excavating Triceratops

Sereno Embarks on Sahara Dinosaur Hunt

By The Chicago Daily
August 18, 2000

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno fully admits the Sahara Desert is a daunting workplace. Temperatures easily reach 118 degrees in the shade, FedEx won't deliver and he has to bury his laptop in the sand so the sun doesn't melt it.

"It's challenging to work there, but the rewards are very high," Sereno said Thursday, announcing his next expedition to Niger.

"We're on the trail of new dinosaurs," he said. "What are they going to look like? I don't know. That's part of the fun."

Sereno and 13 other team members leave Sunday on a four-month expedition to Niger, where they expect to cover a region stretching 300 miles across the Sahara Desert. From the field, Sereno and other team members will post photos and updates to a Web site, www.projectexploration.org. The team will also correspond with Illinois schoolchildren, including some in Naperville where Sereno grew up.

Since much of Africa remains unexplored by fossil-hunters, Sereno said it's tough to predict what the expedition will turn up. One dinosaur, however, Sereno already has his eyes on. He unearthed parts of Nigersaurus on an expedition in 1997, enough to suspect the long-necked dinosaur would make a spectacular skeleton.

Nigersaurus has a square jaw with clusters of teeth arranged in a straight line across the front, like a paper shredder. Sereno believes Nigersaurus might be a signpost pointing to a major change in the plant community when it lived 110 million years ago. At that time, flowering plants like shrubs, grasses and trees were emerging, and Nigersaurus would have a perfect jaw to mow vegetation, Sereno said.

"It has a chewing machine going on, like a lawnmower," Sereno said. "It's specially adapted to the plants of the day, right at the time we're seeing a major change." It really is an unbelievably bizarre animal." Sereno hopes to find enough Nigersaurus bones to construct a nearly complete skeleton.

He also has clues to other finds, including a flying reptile with a 20-foot wingspan, monster crocodiles, duck-billed dinosaurs and other specimens. Besides unearthing large dinosaurs like the 45-foot- long Nigersaurus, the team will use sieves to catch smaller examples of what lived in Africa 90 million to 130 million years ago.

"Almost anything you pull out of there at this point is something new," Sereno said. "People have not explored large tracts of land, which has preserved the bones to this day."

Mounting a four-month expedition in the Sahara is no easy task, however. Besides shopping for pounds and pounds of dehydrated food, the team must arrange for enough water - roughly 52 gallons a day, trucked into the desert and unloaded into large sacks buried underground. To accommodate the Web updates, the team is bringing rugged computers, satellite phones and generators, plus backups for everything.

And then, of course, there's the equipment needed for unearthing fossils. On this trip, that includes 8,000 pounds of plaster, 2,850 square feet of aluminum foil, 1,500 yards of burlap and 75 paintbrushes. Sereno is also returning three of his discoveries to Niger, where they will go on display at the National Museum in Niamey, the capital city.

What he finds in the desert, Sereno will send back to his lab at the University of Chicago for fine cleaning. The lab is already packed with specimens of creatures of the African continent unlike any found in North America.

"These are animals we don't have representatives of" says Sereno. "It's a unique story."

(C) 2000 Chicago Daily Herald>