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Kerning Cultures

Bone of Contention

In 2014, the palaeontologist Nizar Ibrahim went public with an astonishing discovery he’d made while studying a set of dinosaur bones from the Moroccan Sahara. But almost immediately, it caused a rift amongst his colleagues – forcing them to question everything they’d ever known about their work.

This is the strange and chaotic story of Nizar’s discovery – how it upended everything we know about dinosaurs – and the unlikely, devastating saga behind humankind’s pursuit of the truth about the Spinosaurus.

This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design by Youssef Douazou. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.


Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

[STING]

DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures.

AMBI: Alex walking through Nizar’s office hallways

DANA BALLOUT: Our story today is something of a mystery… about a dinosaur called Spinosaurus. Random, I know. Producer Alex Atack will explain. 

AMBI: Alex walking through Nizar’s office hallways

ALEX ATACK: So it starts – not long ago I went to meet this palaeontologist called Nizar Ibrahim at his office.

He’s half Moroccan, half German. He grew up in Germany, but he spent much of his professional life working in Morocco. He was wearing a worn leather jacket and boots – looks like he’d come straight from a dig site.

And as we were walking upstairs, he was like pointing things out in his office. He was walking me through these like alleyways of tall wooden archive drawers.

ALEX ATACK (ON TAPE): It’s exactly how you sort of imagine a palaentologist’s office in movies…

ALEX ATACK: It looks sort of like how a sort of Hollywood director would imagine a palaeontologist’s office to look; loads of those plan drawers and rocks and fossils, just lying openly on the side. And I followed him through to this side room and he picked up this lump of rock and put it in my hand.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: This is part of the back of the skull of Spinosaurus actually…

ALEX ATACK: And he was like, this is part of a Spinosaurus skull. Like this is actually part of Spinosaurus.

ALEX ATACK: So that’s real, that’s not a cast?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yeah that’s real, you can touch it. And you can say you touched a real 100 million year old brain case of a dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: And then on the way out, we bumped into one of his colleagues. 

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Hi Dave! How you doing?

DAVE: What you doing?

And he was like, oh, who are you? Like, what are you here to do? And I was like, oh, I’m I’m a journalist and I’m here to speak to Nizar about Spinosaurus.

DAVE: What else is there?

ALEX ATACK: And he was like, oh, well what else is there?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yes. Spinosaurus, overshadows everything else. 

ALEX ATACK: This is Nizar.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Spinosaurus is always centre stage, and overshadows everything. And of course, Spinosaurus is an amazing creature. The thing I love about Spinosaurus is that it really breaks the mould. It’s unlike any other dinosaur.

DANA BALLOUT: It’s really unlike any dinosaur because according to Nizar, it’s the first dinosaur humans have ever found that lived in water.

And this is huge, because every other dinosaur you can think of (except, of course, for birds) – creatures like T-Rex for example – they all lived and hunted on land. And until now, most palaeontologists thought of dinosaurs as only land creatures. So Nizar coming out and saying – you know what, I think we’ve been getting it all wrong… it meant that – if he was right – it would totally reframe how we thought of dinosaurs. 

And would mean – children’s books and toys, models in museums – they’d all false and need to be redone. Films, too – if you watched Jurassic Park III you’ll remember that scene where Spinosaurus fights a T-Rex? Based on Nizar’s revelation… that’s totally not how Spinosaurus would’ve looked.

It was like the entire world of palaeontology had been upended, by this this twenty-something year old researcher; Nizar Ibrahim.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: We wrote an important new chapter in the dinosaur story because we used to think of dinosaurs as land dwelling animals. We used to think that they never invaded the aquatic world. And here we are with a crocodile toothed paddle tail dinosaur. And that was huge.

ALEX ATACK: But this claim – that his findings was a new chapter in the dinosaur story – caused a huge uproar in the palaeontology world.

ARCHIVE: Why does this dinosaur keep getting more messed up?

ARCHIVE: And they suggested it was an aquatic pursuit predator that was actively chasing after fish, but I have to say, there were some problems with this.

ARCHIVE: No, its not aquatic, and then a paper saying no, it is aquatic. Then, no it’s not aquatic, and then yes, it is aquatic.

ALEX ATACK: He got people, everybody from people on Twitter, pyjama palaeontologists as he called them.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Because they’re just sitting in their pyjamas and just furiously typing on their keyboard.

ALEX ATACK: But also very legitimate, experienced palaeontologists – other people in his field, loads of people criticising him and basically saying: dinosaurs live on land. Dinosaurs do not live in water, and your research isn’t going to change that.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: In science, whenever you kind of challenge long held, decades old dogma, you’re always gonna cause a stir, right?

DANA BALLOUT: So in our episode today: the chaotic tale of this enigmatic creature – the Spinosaurus. How it was nearly lost forever before one palaeontologist happened to come by a set of bones in the Moroccan desert, and changed everything we thought we knew about dinosaurs. And it ignited a the spikey debate over a 95 million year old animal… that that debate and the drama just won’t go away…

MUSIC

NIZAR IBRAHIM: I mean, the story of Spinosaurus is a pretty incredible one. And I don’t think that there’s really another story like it in the world of palaeontology. Spinosaurus was named by a pioneering German palaeontologist. Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, was his name. He was an aristocrat. Lived in a beautiful castle. And he scoured the Sahara in search of fossils. He did a lot of work in Egypt and he described lots of amazing creatures. But probably his most famous expedition was his last expedition to Egypt, in 1910 and early 1911.

ALEX ATACK: He arrived by ship in November 1910, and the main purpose of his visit was to visit this place called the Bahariya Oasis, which is a few hundred kilometres southwest of Cairo. It’s this incredibly rich area where for decades, palaeontologists have found all kinds of dinosaur fossils and dinosaur bones.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And Ersnt Stromer described this entirely new prehistoric menagerie: lots of spectacular creatures, lots of big predators.

ALEX ATACK: Stromer himself, he actually only stayed in Egypt for a couple of months before he went back to Germany. But he established a local crew carried on the dig, and over the next couple of years, by 1914, they set everything they’d found in plaster and shipped it back to Stromer who was in Germany. And when it got to him, he started cataloguing everything. And one of the specimens that stood out to him in particular was the Spinosaurus.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And he only had a few bones of Spinosaurus. He had a slender, elongated lower jaw with conical teeth, a little bit like the teeth of a crocodile. And he had several big, tall spines forming an incredible, spectacular sail on the back of this animal. And a few other bits and pieces. So, from these bones. He knew that this was a very large animal, and it was a very strange and unusual dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: So in Stromer’s technical drawings, the way he imagined Spinosaurus was standing on its back two legs posed a bit like a kangaroo with its tail on the ground.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And the skull still kind of looked like a generalised predatory dinosaur, a pretty robust skull, but with a big sail on its back. And the bones were mounted at the Bavarian state collection museum in Munich and kind of formed the centrepiece of the museum’s dinosaur exhibit. And so it’s kind of a great story up to that point for Stromer. He uncovered these incredible things. He was a well-respected scientist. But then everything changed when World War erupted. Stromer’s life took a very different path. You know, he was a very outspoken critic of the Nazi dictatorship. And he suffered greatly during the war.

MUSIC

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: Yes, he had three sons: Ulman, born in 1921. My father, Wolfgang, born 1922 and Gerhart, born 1927.

ALEX ATACK: So this is Rotraut Baumbauer, she’s the granddaughter of Ernst Stromer. I managed to reach her while she was at the family castle, so the one that Stromer lived in just outside Nuremberg. And she told me that all three of Stromer’s sons were enlisted to fight in the German army during World War II, but by the time the war ended two of them, Ulman and Gerhart had both died in the fighting. And by the end of the war, his third son, Wolfgang, still hadn’t returned.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: Nobody knew where he was.

ALEX ATACK: And Stromer and his wife for a long time believed that they’d lost all of their children in the war.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: And my grandparents believed for quite a long time that they are childless now.

ALEX ATACK: And then in 1950, so around five years after the war ended he came home. And it quickly became clear that or Rotraut’s father had been captured by the Soviet army and sentenced to 25 years in a prison camp in Siberia.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: After six years in imprisonment near Stalingrad, they just set him free and sent him back. We didn’t find out why, ever. And he came back, my father, totally destroyed. It took quite a long time to recover from this.

ALEX ATACK: And while he was there, I mean, it just sounded, what Rotraut told me, he was made to stand for like long periods of time basically in a sort of icy prison cell with no shoes or socks.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: I found letters where he told that he had to stay for three weeks, up to two months in isolation. And had to work in an ice cellar with just socks on the feet, standing in ice cold water and getting once a day little bit of bread and some foul soup. 

ALEX ATACK: When she was young, she remembers her dad telling her that despite the awful conditions in the camp sometimes he was given nutmeg and he used to trade it for bread with other prisoners. Which everyone thought he was crazy for doing because obviously you’d want bread over nutmeg because you could eat it. But what they realised was that when they were given the foul soup and mouldy bread, he’d rub the nutmeg on the inside of his nose and it made it possible to eat more food. The smell with disguise the food. And she told me that up until the end of his life, she used to put nutmeg in his food.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: So Stromer lost two of his sons to the war – but he also lost his life’s work.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It was a very dramatic time for his family, but then also for his scientific discoveries.

ALEX ATACK: The Spinosaurus remains that he’d gathered on that last trip to Egypt they were in the Bavarian State Collection Museum right in the middle of Munich. and he knew his fossils were at risk there. The allies were running air raids over the city by 1943, and buildings around the museum were being destroyed. So he begged the director to move the Spinosaurus remains somewhere else, outside of the city, somewhere safe from the fighting.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: And I found letters when he wrote to the director of academia of science that these bones are so important, and should be hidden in concrete. And the director, a strong Nazi, said no.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: The director of the Munich Museum was an ardent Nazi supporter actually, and he essentially prevented Stromer from having his fossils transported it to a safe location outside of Munich.

ALEX ATACK: And then, in April 1944…

NEWSREEL: You can see that the Pathfinder force are doing their work with deadly accuracy. The main force of bombers starts to arrive…

NIZAR IBRAHIM: A Royal Air Force air raid targeted Munich. The old city of Munich was targeted and that included the Bavarian State Collection Museum. And so the museum was destroyed and the only remains of Spinosaurus were reduced to dust, to rubble.

NEWSREEL: They leave behind the flaming battlefield of yet another victory for bomber command. Another successful action in a great night offensive to cripple the Nazi war machine.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: The big ones, the important ones, they are all gone. And this nearly broke his heart.

ALEX ATACK: The museum wasn’t the target of the bombing, which I guess, makes it more heartbreaking. The target of the bombing was Gestapo headquarters nearby and the museum was collateral damage. And so these fossils, which were like a one of a kind window into the life of Spinosaurus, because at this point, this was the only Spinosaurus that had ever been found. You know, they’d laid buried in Egypt for 95 million years, and then Stromer came to them, and just a few decades later, they were destroyed.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so we just had this short glimpse, and then this creature was lost, seemingly forever.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: Stromer’s original Spinosaurus bones would never be recovered. He kept detailed notes and there are photographs of the remains .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: We’re very fortunate in that Stromer was a pretty meticulous scientist.

ALEX ATACK: But to a palaeontologist like Nizar studying Spinosaurus today, those notes obviously aren’t enough. So in this gap where there’s no real skeleton that you can study and model from, nobody really knew what Spinosaurus looked like or how it lived. The best guess that we had was just that kangaroo lookalike that Stromer had illustrated in 1919.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: The dinosaur remained a mystery and it kind of became the holy grail of dinosaur palaeontology. I think many palaeontologists, whether they’ll admit it or not, were hoping and dreaming that they would find a new Spinosaurus skeleton because it was just an animal that they knew was maybe bigger than T-Rex. It was unlike any other dinosaur had this giant sail on its back and it really remained a mystery for a very long time. 

MUSIC

And so in some ways, Spinosaurus became this almost mythological creature, but it still remained relatively obscure. I think it only really entered the popular you know, popular culture in a big way in 2001 when Jurassic Park III came out. They didn’t really know what Spinosaurus looked like, but they just kind of said, well, we know it probably had an elongated snout. It had a sail on its back. And you know, we’ll just go with that. 

SFX (Cip from Jurassic Park III): Spinosaurus growling, people screaming

Because they were looking for a big predatory dinosaur that could challenge that the T-Rex. Right? So the new big bad dinosaur on the block was Spinosaurus in that movie. And so, that’s quite the entry into the world of pop culture.

SFX (Cip from Jurassic Park III): Spinosaurus growling

ALEX ATACK: But yeah – as Nizar said, that Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park was based on a best estimate because still nobody really knew what it looked like. But all that changed in 2008, when Nizar was on a trip to Morocco.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yeah, I mean, working in the Sahara is like looking for a needle in a very big haystack. And it’s not the easiest place for fossil hunting, there’s snakes and scorpions and sand storms. And so have to climb up these, these slopes and they’re covered with rocks and boulders. They’re not very stable. It’s quite steep sometimes. And you’re doing that in extreme temperatures sometimes when you’re out there in July or something, it’s really hot. And you know, I always tell, when I bring students out there, I always tell them, this is probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but it’s also an adventure of a lifetime. And we’ve collected thousands and thousands of fossils over the years. Everything from turtles to crocs, to dinosaurs, to flying reptiles, fish, snakes, you name it. But it was only in 2008 that I found out about a new set of bones. We came across this guy who was a a fossil hunter.

ALEX ATACK: Which is basically somebody who makes a living by finding fossils and selling them to private buyers. Palaeontologists like Nizar have a kind of tricky relationship with these guys because on the one hand, they come across really important stuff sometimes – things that palaeontologists wouldn’t otherwise find. But on the other hand, they operate in a kind of legal and ethical grey area. So they’ll sell stuff – they’ll sell their finds to private buyers and exporters, and if they do that often it disappears and researchers and palaeontologists can’t access it.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Some important specimens might disappear in a private collection somewhere, or just be dispersed, you know? So different bones that belong to one skeleton might be sold to different people and what have you.

ALEX ATACK: And it is a big trade in Morocco, like according to some estimates it’s worth $40 million a year and about 50,000 people depend on it for their livelihoods. So yeah, guys like Nizar have to kind of learn to work with them.

So anyway, Morocco, 2008 Nizar has just come back from the town of Erfoud, from a dig site, and he got speaking to this fossil hunter, and this guy showed Nizar a cardboard box that had some bones and fossils inside it.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And I didn’t really know what those bones were. It was really hard to tell; they were covered in sediment and rock. But you could tell that they belonged together. In fact, some of the bones were still stuck together in the same block of rock. And I then decided that we should bring those fossils to the university collection in Casablanca at the University of Casablanca where my Moroccan collaborators work. And that’s what we did. And I thought that maybe one day I’d be able to figure out what these mysterious bones are. I knew they were dinosaur bones, but that was about it.

ALEX ATACK: So he left those bones behind in the museum in Casablanca, and a year later he was on a research trip to Italy, and a couple of these Italian researchers he was with, they said, we’ve got this partial skeleton in the basement of our museum we’re not really sure what it is, but we know it was probably taken illegally from somewhere in North Africa, and it’s obviously something big. So did Nizar want to come and take a look at it?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And I looked at the bones and, I was pretty sure that we were looking at a partial skeleton of Spinosaurus. You know, there were leg bones and jaw pieces. But most importantly there were big, long spines. And I picked up one chunk of spine and I looked at the inside structure, it was very dense bone. And when I looked at that piece of bone, I thought this looks almost identical to this strange blade shaped piece of bone I had come across in Morocco. Same colour, same texture same size. And I thought maybe these two sets of bones actually belong to the same skeleton. And if that is true, then maybe I can find out where exactly the dig site is. But the problem I had now was of course, that I had to find the guy who had shown us the bones in the cardboard box.

ALEX ATACK: So the fossil hunter he’d met a few years earlier in Morocco – he had to find him to ask him where he dug those bones up from. And if he knew that, Nizar could go back to the dig site himself and see if there were any more. The problem is, there’s thousands of these guys! Nizar didn’t have his phone number, didn’t stay in touch with him in any way.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so I had to find this one guy in the Sahara, which was just a crazy idea. It was just mission impossible. But I still thought, I have to try at least, because if I find the guy, then maybe I can convince him to take us to the dig site.

ALEX ATACK: And I know it sounds like the beginning of a ridiculous buddy comedy movie, but he told me that he went back to Morocco not long after that trip to Italy with these two colleagues.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: When I told my Moroccan colleague what I wanted to do, he told me, well, okay, I know we met this guy for a few minutes, but you know, do you have his name or his address, or his phone number? And we didn’t have anything of this sort. In fact, the only thing I could remember about the man was that he had a moustache.

ALEX ATACK: Which does not narrow it down very much at all. So they basically just go back and they started speaking to fossil hunters, hanging out in the same place that they’d hung out on the last trip, looking for this elusive man with a moustache.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It was a wild goose chase And we talked to lots of local fossil hunters and we travelled to far long corners of the desert and we just couldn’t find the guy. On the last day of our search, I just felt like, this huge sense of disappointment because I really did believe that we would find the guy. But then I realised that that was just an insane level of wishful thinking probably, right? I mean, what are the odds that you’re actually gonna bump into this guy?

And then, we’re just sitting in sipping tea – mint tea. And this, this little cafe a man walked past us. And I just saw his face very briefly and I thought, am I just hallucinating or was that the guy? Because he looked very familiar and he did have a moustache. And then I looked at my Moroccan colleague, Samir, and he also had this strange expression on his face, and I think we both looked at each other, and I was like, I think this is the guy.

ALEX ATACK: I know how unlikely the whole thing sounds. I have fact checked this as best I possibly could. I’ve spoken to people who know Nizar, everyone I’ve asked about it says that it was true. So yeah, Nizar caught up with him told him what they wanted to do and he said, yeah, he was happy to take them to the dig site. Apparently he said he was finished with it, there was nothing else that he was interested in there. And he told them something else: he said that some of the bones from this site, I actually sold to an Italian guy. So Nizar was like, oh, well then that’s the Italian guy that donated them to this museum that I was in. So it kind of confirmed for Nizar, like, oh, this is the second half of that dinosaur that I saw in Italy.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): Alright, so we’re looking for the remains of an enigmatic, giant predatory dinosaur called Spinosaurus.

ALEX ATACK: This is from a video Nizar recorded on his trip.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): So what you see here is the Sahara, one of the driest places on earth.

ALEX ATACK: So they go back to the original dig site with the fossil hunter, and they’re in this place called the Kem Kem, which is near the border between Algeria and Morocco. Today, its a dry, arid desert. But 95 million years ago, when Spinosaurus was around, it would’ve been this lush river system .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so Spinosaurus was living in a place I call the river of giants because Spinosaurus is a huge predatory dinosaur. It’s the longest predatory dinosaur known, but it also lived alongside giant crocs and big car sized fish. It’s a really extraordinary place.

ALEX ATACK: So, they’re following this fossil hunter, and eventually they get to this dig site – the place where he’d first found these bones Nizar was curious about.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And we immediately realised that there were bits and pieces, little fragments weathering out. The fossil hunter had excavated a relatively small area at the dig site. We removed many, many, many more tons of rock.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): And what you see here is our dig site, you can see we’ve removed a huge amount of rock to get to the bone bearing layer.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Under very difficult conditions like extremely hot scorching temperatures and we had everything, sand storms and team members getting seriously sick. It was really tough.

ALEX ATACK: So, over the next year or so, Nizar and his team eventually uncovered somewhere between a quarter and a third of the creature. And from that, and from existing studies of similar dinosaurs, they built a life-size 3D model of what they thought Spinosaurus might’ve looked like. And, it was not what anybody expected – including Paul Sereno, a professor at the University of Chicago, who was working with Nizar on this study.

PAUL SERENO: I’ll never forget this. I opened up the crate, and one of the first bones I pulled out was one of the leg bones, and I immediately knew that this was a very different kind of Spinosaur, this was some kind of a semi-aquatic animal. That’s where the story began for me, it was an immediate sense of, wow, this is a dinosaur that has gone semi-aquatic, and it would’ve been truly the first one.

ALEX ATACK: So when we look at Ernest Stromer’s initial 1910 Spinosaurus diagram, as I said before, it was this upright kangaroo, T-Rex looking creature standing on its two back legs. Nizar’s illustration in 2014 had it on four legs with this enormous sail on its back. 

But the thing that freaked people out the most wasn’t necessarily the way it looked, but the fact that they were also claiming that this was a water dwelling dinosaur or a river monster as Nizar puts it. That it could walk on land, but that it spent much of its time in the water. And there were a few reasons for this, so firstly, it had these cone-like teeth, that they concluded were best suited to catching and eating fish. And then it had nostrils halfway up its skull so it could dip its head halfway into the water and still breathe. Then there was its bone density.

MATTEO FABBRI: And so all predatory dinosaurs, including modern birds. Or at least the majority of them have very lightweight skeletons.

ALEX ATACK: This is Matteo Fabbri, he’s a post doctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He’s done a bunch of research in Morocco with Nizar and was a co-author on that 2014 paper – that’s the one that found Spinosaurus to be a semi-aquatic dinosaur. And basically the thing that got him excited about Spinosaurus bones is that they weren’t hollow, like you’d expect to find in a land based creature. They were completely dense.

MATTEO FABBRI: And so that was kind of a eureka moment. We knew that this animal was probably spending a lot of time in water, like a modern crocodile or penguins or crocodilians.

ALEX ATACK: So it was this drastic development in everything we know about dinosaurs and it lit the palaeontology world on fire. And suddenly, Nizar was everywhere.

ARCHIVE (NEWSREEL): His students describe him as a real-life Indiana Jones…

ARCHIVE (NEWSREEL): When National Geographic need someone to put together a Spinosaurus, they call Nizar Ibrahim…

ALEX ATACK: This is when he started giving TED Talks, he became a National Geographic fellow.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Blockbuster exhibition, and it was an interesting time.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IBRAHIM SPEECH): These dragons from deep time are incredible creatures. They’re bizarre, they’re beautiful, and there’s very little we know about them.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: For a young scientist, it was a lot to take.

ALEX ATACK: But Nizar and his team weren’t done.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Since then we have continuously found more lines of evidence and really built on that initial interpretation. And everything we find out about dinosaurs reinforces the idea that this was a largely water dwelling dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: They spent the next few years going back to Morocco, back to the same dig site, and in 2020 they came out with another report. And this was the report that sent the palaeontology world, and to some extent the world at large, into a tailspin.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: When we published our paper in 2020, Spinosaurus essentially broke the internet. Right? It was crazy.

ALEX ATACK: But first, we’re going to take a quick break.

[MIDROLL]

ALEX ATACK: So in that 2014 paper, Nizar and his team came out with some pretty radical claims about how the Spinosaurus looked, and how it lived – they said this was the first water-dwelling dinosaur we’d ever found evidence for. And that was controversial in its own right. But then in 2020, he went even further.

Nizar and the team released a new paper that basically said no, no, no – we don’t think Spinosaurus walked on four legs at all. They’d spent a few years between 2014 and 2019 going back to the Kem Kem and excavating more around the same animal. And what they found was this enormous tail structure. And when they started putting together the tail they found it was different to other carnivorous dinosaurs’ tails. Its bones were not interlocked, meaning it might’ve been able to wiggle or flap its tail – a bit like an eel propels itself through the water .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Our colleagues in Harvard build this cutout model of the tail that was in a water tank, so we could actually quantify the advantage that the tail would would bring to an animal.

ALEX ATACK: And then they were ready to release the new artist’s impression, and this was completely different again. So this time it looks like something between like a giant lizard slash eel, but the size of a T-Rex. So when he came out with that, the internet just had a field day.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: On social media, there was just thousands and thousands of pieces of artwork that people were uploading of this new Spinosaurus with its paddle tail, right? It was everywhere, it was on t-shirts, face masks. It was the pandemic; you could buy a face mask for the paddle tailed Spinosaurus. Toy companies were releasing new models of Spinosaurus and you’d look on Twitter and multiple countries, you’d look at the top trending things and Spinosaurus would be one of the top trending things, right? It was pretty remarkable.

ALEX ATACK: And I can see why. I mean, it is such a good story. Like you have World War II, Nazis, these serendipitous moments, chance encounters. Even Nizar himself said it was like a Hollywood movie. But all of that is not the whole story. After Nizar’s new paper in 2020 came a series of other papers from well-respected palaeontologists and they didn’t buy into the water dwelling theory at all.

ARCHIVE: (DAVID HONE LECTURE): Myself and my colleague Tom Holtz looked at this, and we said, well, look, there’s quite a collection of issues here.

ALEX ATACK: This is the British palaeontologist David Hone giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London. He didn’t want to speak to me for this story – he said that two-sided productions “confuse balance with evidence” and he felt that wasn’t a good way to communicate scientific disagreements.

But David Hone’s theory is basically that the Spinosaurus was more like a heron, so he calls it the ‘hell heron’, which I think is a really quite catchy name. That it was able to wade into shallow waters to catch fish with its long snout, but it wouldn’t actually have spent any time underwater.

And he thinks that mainly because of the shape of its skull, and because, he says, the sail on its back would likely have just caused too much drag for it to have been an effective swimmer.

And I did also speak to two palaeontologists who have come out with a new paper just in the last few months actually, which – I mean, the title of the paper is literally, “Spinosaurus is Not an Aquatic Dinosaur. So I mean, it’s gets straight to the point.

And one of those authors was actually Paul Sereno – who actually worked with Nizar on that 2014 paper.

PAUL SERENO: Our paths sort of diverged, scholarly. Nizar went off and came up with a different view of the dinosaur. Much more aquatic. As really an excellent swimmer, one that would be able to dive and pursue prey underwater. And that was never my understanding of the dinosaur from working with the bones originally and from our original paper. There were a few things that I would correct from the original paper, but I was pretty convinced it was a semi-aquatic animal, which is very different, in terms of how we think it lived its life. And so what we did in the new paper was to start from scratch. That is to say, with the fossil bones, the CAT scans, rebuild the skeleton in as best detail as we possibly could.

ALEX ATACK: And when they did that, they basically couldn’t find any evidence to support the idea that Spinosaurus lived a fully aquatic lifestyle.

PAUL SERENO: I think that Spinosaurus spent more of its time on the coast, incapable of swimming, because its balance of its body would mean it’s very unstable.

ALEX ATACK: But when I asked Nizar about all of this, like he’s still completely confident in his work.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: I don’t think I really doubted our science. We were the only people working on the Spinosaurus skeleton and nobody else had worked on Spinosaurus, you know what I mean? So it wasn’t like there was someone else with experience working on this particular animal, right?

ALEX ATACK: So obviously there’s a lot of disagreement between how different palaeontologists think the Spinosaurus lived. And I was left wondering what am I supposed to believe? So I asked Mateo Fabbri – one of the palaeontologists who works with Nizar.

MATTEO FABBRI: Yes. So first of all, I think that you are not supposed to believe anything. Meaning that when we speak about science, you should look at the evidence and we should just understand what’s going on.

ALEX ATACK: The main point for Matteo, he’s basically saying you can point to the skull and say that the skull isn’t perfectly suited for living underwater, but you can point to any one feature on any animal and say, well, that isn’t perfectly suited to their surroundings. One feature isn’t indicative of an entire lifestyle.

MATTEO FABBRI: My point against the other hypothesis is that they take feature by feature trying to dismantle how every single feature is not indicative for water-loving ecology. But in my opinion, it’s a very naive approach. And, therefore I think we should look at the animal as a whole, not as feature by feature. If that makes sense.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: So there’s a lot more work to do and when I spoke to Nizar and Matteo, they were literally just about to leave for another expedition to Morocco hoping to find more evidence to support the aquatic theory. I think this debate will probably carry on igniting and reigniting itself every time a new paper comes out. And I think that the quest defined answers to this mystery dinosaur will outlast all of us.

But for now, something these are can control is how future generations will access all of this research material and peel back even more layers to the mystery – like what happened to Ernest Stromer’s Spinosaurus in World War II, where it was completely destroyed. That’s an extreme case, but it’s also an example of like how delicate this kind of research is and how much it depends on these incredibly rare and fragile fossils. And for Nizar, I mean it’s about doing as much as he can, but also like passing it on to other researchers in like the future generation to maybe finally get to the bottom of this mystery.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It’s really about building up capacity for the long haul. Right? So we established a research collection in in Casablanca at the University of Casablanca. And it started off pretty small and it is now one of the largest fossil collections of its kind for cretaceous vertebrates from Africa.

And so a lot of what I’m doing in Africa is also about capacity building. So all of my fossils have been returned to Morocco, right? Which is not the way this has been done in many cases in the past, right? Where people are still taking somewhat kind of neocolonialist approach, right? But I think that we don’t live in colonial times anymore. We have a responsibility to make sure that the field work we’re doing is a win win scenario.

ALEX ATACK: So maybe, some time long after we’re all gone, someone will end up picking up the work Ernst Stromer started and then Nizar Ibrahim continued. And they’ll look at this minefield of conflicting evidence for how Spinosaurus might or might not have lived, and they’ll be able to parse through it all to find a definitive answer to this dino mystery that has plagued and frustrated and broken the hearts of palaeontologists for decades. But until then… Spinosaurus is going to drive people crazy.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry, and sound design and mixing by Youssef Douazou. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

A special thanks to everybody who spoke to us for this episode: Nizar Ibrahim, Matteo Fabbri, Rotraut Baumbauer, Paul Sereno and Don Henderson.

We’ll post photos from Nizar’s expeditions and the ever changing artist impressions of Spinosaurus over the years on our Instagram, its @kerningcultures.

BLEEP

ALEX ATACK: And I don’t who won that fight, I should probably know that.

DANA BALLOUT: We should definitely find out who won. 

ALEX ATACK: We should definitely find out who won that fight. 

DANA BALLOUT: Let’s Google it. Jurassic Park…

ALEX ATACK: Who wins? T-Rex V…

DANA BALLOUT: Spinosaurus wins the fight.

ALEX ATACK: Spinosaurus won? Okay, there you go.

STING

[STING]

DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures.

AMBI: Alex walking through Nizar’s office hallways

DANA BALLOUT: Our story today is something of a mystery… about a dinosaur called Spinosaurus. Random, I know. Producer Alex Atack will explain. 

AMBI: Alex walking through Nizar’s office hallways

ALEX ATACK: So it starts – not long ago I went to meet this palaeontologist called Nizar Ibrahim at his office.

He’s half Moroccan, half German. He grew up in Germany, but he spent much of his professional life working in Morocco. He was wearing a worn leather jacket and boots – looks like he’d come straight from a dig site.

And as we were walking upstairs, he was like pointing things out in his office. He was walking me through these like alleyways of tall wooden archive drawers.

ALEX ATACK (ON TAPE): It’s exactly how you sort of imagine a palaentologist’s office in movies…

ALEX ATACK: It looks sort of like how a sort of Hollywood director would imagine a palaeontologist’s office to look; loads of those plan drawers and rocks and fossils, just lying openly on the side. And I followed him through to this side room and he picked up this lump of rock and put it in my hand.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: This is part of the back of the skull of Spinosaurus actually…

ALEX ATACK: And he was like, this is part of a Spinosaurus skull. Like this is actually part of Spinosaurus.

ALEX ATACK: So that’s real, that’s not a cast?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yeah that’s real, you can touch it. And you can say you touched a real 100 million year old brain case of a dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: And then on the way out, we bumped into one of his colleagues. 

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Hi Dave! How you doing?

DAVE: What you doing?

And he was like, oh, who are you? Like, what are you here to do? And I was like, oh, I’m I’m a journalist and I’m here to speak to Nizar about Spinosaurus.

DAVE: What else is there?

ALEX ATACK: And he was like, oh, well what else is there?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yes. Spinosaurus, overshadows everything else. 

ALEX ATACK: This is Nizar.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Spinosaurus is always centre stage, and overshadows everything. And of course, Spinosaurus is an amazing creature. The thing I love about Spinosaurus is that it really breaks the mould. It’s unlike any other dinosaur.

DANA BALLOUT: It’s really unlike any dinosaur because according to Nizar, it’s the first dinosaur humans have ever found that lived in water.

And this is huge, because every other dinosaur you can think of (except, of course, for birds) – creatures like T-Rex for example – they all lived and hunted on land. And until now, most palaeontologists thought of dinosaurs as only land creatures. So Nizar coming out and saying – you know what, I think we’ve been getting it all wrong… it meant that – if he was right – it would totally reframe how we thought of dinosaurs. 

And would mean – children’s books and toys, models in museums – they’d all false and need to be redone. Films, too – if you watched Jurassic Park III you’ll remember that scene where Spinosaurus fights a T-Rex? Based on Nizar’s revelation… that’s totally not how Spinosaurus would’ve looked.

It was like the entire world of palaeontology had been upended, by this this twenty-something year old researcher; Nizar Ibrahim.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: We wrote an important new chapter in the dinosaur story because we used to think of dinosaurs as land dwelling animals. We used to think that they never invaded the aquatic world. And here we are with a crocodile toothed paddle tail dinosaur. And that was huge.

ALEX ATACK: But this claim – that his findings was a new chapter in the dinosaur story – caused a huge uproar in the palaeontology world.

ARCHIVE: Why does this dinosaur keep getting more messed up?

ARCHIVE: And they suggested it was an aquatic pursuit predator that was actively chasing after fish, but I have to say, there were some problems with this.

ARCHIVE: No, its not aquatic, and then a paper saying no, it is aquatic. Then, no it’s not aquatic, and then yes, it is aquatic.

ALEX ATACK: He got people, everybody from people on Twitter, pyjama palaeontologists as he called them.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Because they’re just sitting in their pyjamas and just furiously typing on their keyboard.

ALEX ATACK: But also very legitimate, experienced palaeontologists – other people in his field, loads of people criticising him and basically saying: dinosaurs live on land. Dinosaurs do not live in water, and your research isn’t going to change that.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: In science, whenever you kind of challenge long held, decades old dogma, you’re always gonna cause a stir, right?

DANA BALLOUT: So in our episode today: the chaotic tale of this enigmatic creature – the Spinosaurus. How it was nearly lost forever before one palaeontologist happened to come by a set of bones in the Moroccan desert, and changed everything we thought we knew about dinosaurs. And it ignited a the spikey debate over a 95 million year old animal… that that debate and the drama just won’t go away…

MUSIC

NIZAR IBRAHIM: I mean, the story of Spinosaurus is a pretty incredible one. And I don’t think that there’s really another story like it in the world of palaeontology. Spinosaurus was named by a pioneering German palaeontologist. Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, was his name. He was an aristocrat. Lived in a beautiful castle. And he scoured the Sahara in search of fossils. He did a lot of work in Egypt and he described lots of amazing creatures. But probably his most famous expedition was his last expedition to Egypt, in 1910 and early 1911.

ALEX ATACK: He arrived by ship in November 1910, and the main purpose of his visit was to visit this place called the Bahariya Oasis, which is a few hundred kilometres southwest of Cairo. It’s this incredibly rich area where for decades, palaeontologists have found all kinds of dinosaur fossils and dinosaur bones.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And Ersnt Stromer described this entirely new prehistoric menagerie: lots of spectacular creatures, lots of big predators.

ALEX ATACK: Stromer himself, he actually only stayed in Egypt for a couple of months before he went back to Germany. But he established a local crew carried on the dig, and over the next couple of years, by 1914, they set everything they’d found in plaster and shipped it back to Stromer who was in Germany. And when it got to him, he started cataloguing everything. And one of the specimens that stood out to him in particular was the Spinosaurus.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And he only had a few bones of Spinosaurus. He had a slender, elongated lower jaw with conical teeth, a little bit like the teeth of a crocodile. And he had several big, tall spines forming an incredible, spectacular sail on the back of this animal. And a few other bits and pieces. So, from these bones. He knew that this was a very large animal, and it was a very strange and unusual dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: So in Stromer’s technical drawings, the way he imagined Spinosaurus was standing on its back two legs posed a bit like a kangaroo with its tail on the ground.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And the skull still kind of looked like a generalised predatory dinosaur, a pretty robust skull, but with a big sail on its back. And the bones were mounted at the Bavarian state collection museum in Munich and kind of formed the centrepiece of the museum’s dinosaur exhibit. And so it’s kind of a great story up to that point for Stromer. He uncovered these incredible things. He was a well-respected scientist. But then everything changed when World War erupted. Stromer’s life took a very different path. You know, he was a very outspoken critic of the Nazi dictatorship. And he suffered greatly during the war.

MUSIC

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: Yes, he had three sons: Ulman, born in 1921. My father, Wolfgang, born 1922 and Gerhart, born 1927.

ALEX ATACK: So this is Rotraut Baumbauer, she’s the granddaughter of Ernst Stromer. I managed to reach her while she was at the family castle, so the one that Stromer lived in just outside Nuremberg. And she told me that all three of Stromer’s sons were enlisted to fight in the German army during World War II, but by the time the war ended two of them, Ulman and Gerhart had both died in the fighting. And by the end of the war, his third son, Wolfgang, still hadn’t returned.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: Nobody knew where he was.

ALEX ATACK: And Stromer and his wife for a long time believed that they’d lost all of their children in the war.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: And my grandparents believed for quite a long time that they are childless now.

ALEX ATACK: And then in 1950, so around five years after the war ended he came home. And it quickly became clear that or Rotraut’s father had been captured by the Soviet army and sentenced to 25 years in a prison camp in Siberia.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: After six years in imprisonment near Stalingrad, they just set him free and sent him back. We didn’t find out why, ever. And he came back, my father, totally destroyed. It took quite a long time to recover from this.

ALEX ATACK: And while he was there, I mean, it just sounded, what Rotraut told me, he was made to stand for like long periods of time basically in a sort of icy prison cell with no shoes or socks.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: I found letters where he told that he had to stay for three weeks, up to two months in isolation. And had to work in an ice cellar with just socks on the feet, standing in ice cold water and getting once a day little bit of bread and some foul soup. 

ALEX ATACK: When she was young, she remembers her dad telling her that despite the awful conditions in the camp sometimes he was given nutmeg and he used to trade it for bread with other prisoners. Which everyone thought he was crazy for doing because obviously you’d want bread over nutmeg because you could eat it. But what they realised was that when they were given the foul soup and mouldy bread, he’d rub the nutmeg on the inside of his nose and it made it possible to eat more food. The smell with disguise the food. And she told me that up until the end of his life, she used to put nutmeg in his food.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: So Stromer lost two of his sons to the war – but he also lost his life’s work.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It was a very dramatic time for his family, but then also for his scientific discoveries.

ALEX ATACK: The Spinosaurus remains that he’d gathered on that last trip to Egypt they were in the Bavarian State Collection Museum right in the middle of Munich. and he knew his fossils were at risk there. The allies were running air raids over the city by 1943, and buildings around the museum were being destroyed. So he begged the director to move the Spinosaurus remains somewhere else, outside of the city, somewhere safe from the fighting.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: And I found letters when he wrote to the director of academia of science that these bones are so important, and should be hidden in concrete. And the director, a strong Nazi, said no.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: The director of the Munich Museum was an ardent Nazi supporter actually, and he essentially prevented Stromer from having his fossils transported it to a safe location outside of Munich.

ALEX ATACK: And then, in April 1944…

NEWSREEL: You can see that the Pathfinder force are doing their work with deadly accuracy. The main force of bombers starts to arrive…

NIZAR IBRAHIM: A Royal Air Force air raid targeted Munich. The old city of Munich was targeted and that included the Bavarian State Collection Museum. And so the museum was destroyed and the only remains of Spinosaurus were reduced to dust, to rubble.

NEWSREEL: They leave behind the flaming battlefield of yet another victory for bomber command. Another successful action in a great night offensive to cripple the Nazi war machine.

ROTRAUT BAUMBAUER: The big ones, the important ones, they are all gone. And this nearly broke his heart.

ALEX ATACK: The museum wasn’t the target of the bombing, which I guess, makes it more heartbreaking. The target of the bombing was Gestapo headquarters nearby and the museum was collateral damage. And so these fossils, which were like a one of a kind window into the life of Spinosaurus, because at this point, this was the only Spinosaurus that had ever been found. You know, they’d laid buried in Egypt for 95 million years, and then Stromer came to them, and just a few decades later, they were destroyed.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so we just had this short glimpse, and then this creature was lost, seemingly forever.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: Stromer’s original Spinosaurus bones would never be recovered. He kept detailed notes and there are photographs of the remains .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: We’re very fortunate in that Stromer was a pretty meticulous scientist.

ALEX ATACK: But to a palaeontologist like Nizar studying Spinosaurus today, those notes obviously aren’t enough. So in this gap where there’s no real skeleton that you can study and model from, nobody really knew what Spinosaurus looked like or how it lived. The best guess that we had was just that kangaroo lookalike that Stromer had illustrated in 1919.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: The dinosaur remained a mystery and it kind of became the holy grail of dinosaur palaeontology. I think many palaeontologists, whether they’ll admit it or not, were hoping and dreaming that they would find a new Spinosaurus skeleton because it was just an animal that they knew was maybe bigger than T-Rex. It was unlike any other dinosaur had this giant sail on its back and it really remained a mystery for a very long time. 

MUSIC

And so in some ways, Spinosaurus became this almost mythological creature, but it still remained relatively obscure. I think it only really entered the popular you know, popular culture in a big way in 2001 when Jurassic Park III came out. They didn’t really know what Spinosaurus looked like, but they just kind of said, well, we know it probably had an elongated snout. It had a sail on its back. And you know, we’ll just go with that. 

SFX (Cip from Jurassic Park III): Spinosaurus growling, people screaming

Because they were looking for a big predatory dinosaur that could challenge that the T-Rex. Right? So the new big bad dinosaur on the block was Spinosaurus in that movie. And so, that’s quite the entry into the world of pop culture.

SFX (Cip from Jurassic Park III): Spinosaurus growling

ALEX ATACK: But yeah – as Nizar said, that Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park was based on a best estimate because still nobody really knew what it looked like. But all that changed in 2008, when Nizar was on a trip to Morocco.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Yeah, I mean, working in the Sahara is like looking for a needle in a very big haystack. And it’s not the easiest place for fossil hunting, there’s snakes and scorpions and sand storms. And so have to climb up these, these slopes and they’re covered with rocks and boulders. They’re not very stable. It’s quite steep sometimes. And you’re doing that in extreme temperatures sometimes when you’re out there in July or something, it’s really hot. And you know, I always tell, when I bring students out there, I always tell them, this is probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but it’s also an adventure of a lifetime. And we’ve collected thousands and thousands of fossils over the years. Everything from turtles to crocs, to dinosaurs, to flying reptiles, fish, snakes, you name it. But it was only in 2008 that I found out about a new set of bones. We came across this guy who was a a fossil hunter.

ALEX ATACK: Which is basically somebody who makes a living by finding fossils and selling them to private buyers. Palaeontologists like Nizar have a kind of tricky relationship with these guys because on the one hand, they come across really important stuff sometimes – things that palaeontologists wouldn’t otherwise find. But on the other hand, they operate in a kind of legal and ethical grey area. So they’ll sell stuff – they’ll sell their finds to private buyers and exporters, and if they do that often it disappears and researchers and palaeontologists can’t access it.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Some important specimens might disappear in a private collection somewhere, or just be dispersed, you know? So different bones that belong to one skeleton might be sold to different people and what have you.

ALEX ATACK: And it is a big trade in Morocco, like according to some estimates it’s worth $40 million a year and about 50,000 people depend on it for their livelihoods. So yeah, guys like Nizar have to kind of learn to work with them.

So anyway, Morocco, 2008 Nizar has just come back from the town of Erfoud, from a dig site, and he got speaking to this fossil hunter, and this guy showed Nizar a cardboard box that had some bones and fossils inside it.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And I didn’t really know what those bones were. It was really hard to tell; they were covered in sediment and rock. But you could tell that they belonged together. In fact, some of the bones were still stuck together in the same block of rock. And I then decided that we should bring those fossils to the university collection in Casablanca at the University of Casablanca where my Moroccan collaborators work. And that’s what we did. And I thought that maybe one day I’d be able to figure out what these mysterious bones are. I knew they were dinosaur bones, but that was about it.

ALEX ATACK: So he left those bones behind in the museum in Casablanca, and a year later he was on a research trip to Italy, and a couple of these Italian researchers he was with, they said, we’ve got this partial skeleton in the basement of our museum we’re not really sure what it is, but we know it was probably taken illegally from somewhere in North Africa, and it’s obviously something big. So did Nizar want to come and take a look at it?

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And I looked at the bones and, I was pretty sure that we were looking at a partial skeleton of Spinosaurus. You know, there were leg bones and jaw pieces. But most importantly there were big, long spines. And I picked up one chunk of spine and I looked at the inside structure, it was very dense bone. And when I looked at that piece of bone, I thought this looks almost identical to this strange blade shaped piece of bone I had come across in Morocco. Same colour, same texture same size. And I thought maybe these two sets of bones actually belong to the same skeleton. And if that is true, then maybe I can find out where exactly the dig site is. But the problem I had now was of course, that I had to find the guy who had shown us the bones in the cardboard box.

ALEX ATACK: So the fossil hunter he’d met a few years earlier in Morocco – he had to find him to ask him where he dug those bones up from. And if he knew that, Nizar could go back to the dig site himself and see if there were any more. The problem is, there’s thousands of these guys! Nizar didn’t have his phone number, didn’t stay in touch with him in any way.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so I had to find this one guy in the Sahara, which was just a crazy idea. It was just mission impossible. But I still thought, I have to try at least, because if I find the guy, then maybe I can convince him to take us to the dig site.

ALEX ATACK: And I know it sounds like the beginning of a ridiculous buddy comedy movie, but he told me that he went back to Morocco not long after that trip to Italy with these two colleagues.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: When I told my Moroccan colleague what I wanted to do, he told me, well, okay, I know we met this guy for a few minutes, but you know, do you have his name or his address, or his phone number? And we didn’t have anything of this sort. In fact, the only thing I could remember about the man was that he had a moustache.

ALEX ATACK: Which does not narrow it down very much at all. So they basically just go back and they started speaking to fossil hunters, hanging out in the same place that they’d hung out on the last trip, looking for this elusive man with a moustache.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It was a wild goose chase And we talked to lots of local fossil hunters and we travelled to far long corners of the desert and we just couldn’t find the guy. On the last day of our search, I just felt like, this huge sense of disappointment because I really did believe that we would find the guy. But then I realised that that was just an insane level of wishful thinking probably, right? I mean, what are the odds that you’re actually gonna bump into this guy?

And then, we’re just sitting in sipping tea – mint tea. And this, this little cafe a man walked past us. And I just saw his face very briefly and I thought, am I just hallucinating or was that the guy? Because he looked very familiar and he did have a moustache. And then I looked at my Moroccan colleague, Samir, and he also had this strange expression on his face, and I think we both looked at each other, and I was like, I think this is the guy.

ALEX ATACK: I know how unlikely the whole thing sounds. I have fact checked this as best I possibly could. I’ve spoken to people who know Nizar, everyone I’ve asked about it says that it was true. So yeah, Nizar caught up with him told him what they wanted to do and he said, yeah, he was happy to take them to the dig site. Apparently he said he was finished with it, there was nothing else that he was interested in there. And he told them something else: he said that some of the bones from this site, I actually sold to an Italian guy. So Nizar was like, oh, well then that’s the Italian guy that donated them to this museum that I was in. So it kind of confirmed for Nizar, like, oh, this is the second half of that dinosaur that I saw in Italy.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): Alright, so we’re looking for the remains of an enigmatic, giant predatory dinosaur called Spinosaurus.

ALEX ATACK: This is from a video Nizar recorded on his trip.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): So what you see here is the Sahara, one of the driest places on earth.

ALEX ATACK: So they go back to the original dig site with the fossil hunter, and they’re in this place called the Kem Kem, which is near the border between Algeria and Morocco. Today, its a dry, arid desert. But 95 million years ago, when Spinosaurus was around, it would’ve been this lush river system .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And so Spinosaurus was living in a place I call the river of giants because Spinosaurus is a huge predatory dinosaur. It’s the longest predatory dinosaur known, but it also lived alongside giant crocs and big car sized fish. It’s a really extraordinary place.

ALEX ATACK: So, they’re following this fossil hunter, and eventually they get to this dig site – the place where he’d first found these bones Nizar was curious about.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: And we immediately realised that there were bits and pieces, little fragments weathering out. The fossil hunter had excavated a relatively small area at the dig site. We removed many, many, many more tons of rock.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IN THE SAHARA): And what you see here is our dig site, you can see we’ve removed a huge amount of rock to get to the bone bearing layer.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Under very difficult conditions like extremely hot scorching temperatures and we had everything, sand storms and team members getting seriously sick. It was really tough.

ALEX ATACK: So, over the next year or so, Nizar and his team eventually uncovered somewhere between a quarter and a third of the creature. And from that, and from existing studies of similar dinosaurs, they built a life-size 3D model of what they thought Spinosaurus might’ve looked like. And, it was not what anybody expected – including Paul Sereno, a professor at the University of Chicago, who was working with Nizar on this study.

PAUL SERENO: I’ll never forget this. I opened up the crate, and one of the first bones I pulled out was one of the leg bones, and I immediately knew that this was a very different kind of Spinosaur, this was some kind of a semi-aquatic animal. That’s where the story began for me, it was an immediate sense of, wow, this is a dinosaur that has gone semi-aquatic, and it would’ve been truly the first one.

ALEX ATACK: So when we look at Ernest Stromer’s initial 1910 Spinosaurus diagram, as I said before, it was this upright kangaroo, T-Rex looking creature standing on its two back legs. Nizar’s illustration in 2014 had it on four legs with this enormous sail on its back. 

But the thing that freaked people out the most wasn’t necessarily the way it looked, but the fact that they were also claiming that this was a water dwelling dinosaur or a river monster as Nizar puts it. That it could walk on land, but that it spent much of its time in the water. And there were a few reasons for this, so firstly, it had these cone-like teeth, that they concluded were best suited to catching and eating fish. And then it had nostrils halfway up its skull so it could dip its head halfway into the water and still breathe. Then there was its bone density.

MATTEO FABBRI: And so all predatory dinosaurs, including modern birds. Or at least the majority of them have very lightweight skeletons.

ALEX ATACK: This is Matteo Fabbri, he’s a post doctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He’s done a bunch of research in Morocco with Nizar and was a co-author on that 2014 paper – that’s the one that found Spinosaurus to be a semi-aquatic dinosaur. And basically the thing that got him excited about Spinosaurus bones is that they weren’t hollow, like you’d expect to find in a land based creature. They were completely dense.

MATTEO FABBRI: And so that was kind of a eureka moment. We knew that this animal was probably spending a lot of time in water, like a modern crocodile or penguins or crocodilians.

ALEX ATACK: So it was this drastic development in everything we know about dinosaurs and it lit the palaeontology world on fire. And suddenly, Nizar was everywhere.

ARCHIVE (NEWSREEL): His students describe him as a real-life Indiana Jones…

ARCHIVE (NEWSREEL): When National Geographic need someone to put together a Spinosaurus, they call Nizar Ibrahim…

ALEX ATACK: This is when he started giving TED Talks, he became a National Geographic fellow.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Blockbuster exhibition, and it was an interesting time.

ARCHIVE (NIZAR IBRAHIM SPEECH): These dragons from deep time are incredible creatures. They’re bizarre, they’re beautiful, and there’s very little we know about them.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: For a young scientist, it was a lot to take.

ALEX ATACK: But Nizar and his team weren’t done.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Since then we have continuously found more lines of evidence and really built on that initial interpretation. And everything we find out about dinosaurs reinforces the idea that this was a largely water dwelling dinosaur.

ALEX ATACK: They spent the next few years going back to Morocco, back to the same dig site, and in 2020 they came out with another report. And this was the report that sent the palaeontology world, and to some extent the world at large, into a tailspin.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: When we published our paper in 2020, Spinosaurus essentially broke the internet. Right? It was crazy.

ALEX ATACK: But first, we’re going to take a quick break.

[MIDROLL]

ALEX ATACK: So in that 2014 paper, Nizar and his team came out with some pretty radical claims about how the Spinosaurus looked, and how it lived – they said this was the first water-dwelling dinosaur we’d ever found evidence for. And that was controversial in its own right. But then in 2020, he went even further.

Nizar and the team released a new paper that basically said no, no, no – we don’t think Spinosaurus walked on four legs at all. They’d spent a few years between 2014 and 2019 going back to the Kem Kem and excavating more around the same animal. And what they found was this enormous tail structure. And when they started putting together the tail they found it was different to other carnivorous dinosaurs’ tails. Its bones were not interlocked, meaning it might’ve been able to wiggle or flap its tail – a bit like an eel propels itself through the water .

NIZAR IBRAHIM: Our colleagues in Harvard build this cutout model of the tail that was in a water tank, so we could actually quantify the advantage that the tail would would bring to an animal.

ALEX ATACK: And then they were ready to release the new artist’s impression, and this was completely different again. So this time it looks like something between like a giant lizard slash eel, but the size of a T-Rex. So when he came out with that, the internet just had a field day.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: On social media, there was just thousands and thousands of pieces of artwork that people were uploading of this new Spinosaurus with its paddle tail, right? It was everywhere, it was on t-shirts, face masks. It was the pandemic; you could buy a face mask for the paddle tailed Spinosaurus. Toy companies were releasing new models of Spinosaurus and you’d look on Twitter and multiple countries, you’d look at the top trending things and Spinosaurus would be one of the top trending things, right? It was pretty remarkable.

ALEX ATACK: And I can see why. I mean, it is such a good story. Like you have World War II, Nazis, these serendipitous moments, chance encounters. Even Nizar himself said it was like a Hollywood movie. But all of that is not the whole story. After Nizar’s new paper in 2020 came a series of other papers from well-respected palaeontologists and they didn’t buy into the water dwelling theory at all.

ARCHIVE: (DAVID HONE LECTURE): Myself and my colleague Tom Holtz looked at this, and we said, well, look, there’s quite a collection of issues here.

ALEX ATACK: This is the British palaeontologist David Hone giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London. He didn’t want to speak to me for this story – he said that two-sided productions “confuse balance with evidence” and he felt that wasn’t a good way to communicate scientific disagreements.

But David Hone’s theory is basically that the Spinosaurus was more like a heron, so he calls it the ‘hell heron’, which I think is a really quite catchy name. That it was able to wade into shallow waters to catch fish with its long snout, but it wouldn’t actually have spent any time underwater.

And he thinks that mainly because of the shape of its skull, and because, he says, the sail on its back would likely have just caused too much drag for it to have been an effective swimmer.

And I did also speak to two palaeontologists who have come out with a new paper just in the last few months actually, which – I mean, the title of the paper is literally, “Spinosaurus is Not an Aquatic Dinosaur. So I mean, it’s gets straight to the point.

And one of those authors was actually Paul Sereno – who actually worked with Nizar on that 2014 paper.

PAUL SERENO: Our paths sort of diverged, scholarly. Nizar went off and came up with a different view of the dinosaur. Much more aquatic. As really an excellent swimmer, one that would be able to dive and pursue prey underwater. And that was never my understanding of the dinosaur from working with the bones originally and from our original paper. There were a few things that I would correct from the original paper, but I was pretty convinced it was a semi-aquatic animal, which is very different, in terms of how we think it lived its life. And so what we did in the new paper was to start from scratch. That is to say, with the fossil bones, the CAT scans, rebuild the skeleton in as best detail as we possibly could.

ALEX ATACK: And when they did that, they basically couldn’t find any evidence to support the idea that Spinosaurus lived a fully aquatic lifestyle.

PAUL SERENO: I think that Spinosaurus spent more of its time on the coast, incapable of swimming, because its balance of its body would mean it’s very unstable.

ALEX ATACK: But when I asked Nizar about all of this, like he’s still completely confident in his work.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: I don’t think I really doubted our science. We were the only people working on the Spinosaurus skeleton and nobody else had worked on Spinosaurus, you know what I mean? So it wasn’t like there was someone else with experience working on this particular animal, right?

ALEX ATACK: So obviously there’s a lot of disagreement between how different palaeontologists think the Spinosaurus lived. And I was left wondering what am I supposed to believe? So I asked Mateo Fabbri – one of the palaeontologists who works with Nizar.

MATTEO FABBRI: Yes. So first of all, I think that you are not supposed to believe anything. Meaning that when we speak about science, you should look at the evidence and we should just understand what’s going on.

ALEX ATACK: The main point for Matteo, he’s basically saying you can point to the skull and say that the skull isn’t perfectly suited for living underwater, but you can point to any one feature on any animal and say, well, that isn’t perfectly suited to their surroundings. One feature isn’t indicative of an entire lifestyle.

MATTEO FABBRI: My point against the other hypothesis is that they take feature by feature trying to dismantle how every single feature is not indicative for water-loving ecology. But in my opinion, it’s a very naive approach. And, therefore I think we should look at the animal as a whole, not as feature by feature. If that makes sense.

MUSIC

ALEX ATACK: So there’s a lot more work to do and when I spoke to Nizar and Matteo, they were literally just about to leave for another expedition to Morocco hoping to find more evidence to support the aquatic theory. I think this debate will probably carry on igniting and reigniting itself every time a new paper comes out. And I think that the quest defined answers to this mystery dinosaur will outlast all of us.

But for now, something these are can control is how future generations will access all of this research material and peel back even more layers to the mystery – like what happened to Ernest Stromer’s Spinosaurus in World War II, where it was completely destroyed. That’s an extreme case, but it’s also an example of like how delicate this kind of research is and how much it depends on these incredibly rare and fragile fossils. And for Nizar, I mean it’s about doing as much as he can, but also like passing it on to other researchers in like the future generation to maybe finally get to the bottom of this mystery.

NIZAR IBRAHIM: It’s really about building up capacity for the long haul. Right? So we established a research collection in in Casablanca at the University of Casablanca. And it started off pretty small and it is now one of the largest fossil collections of its kind for cretaceous vertebrates from Africa.

And so a lot of what I’m doing in Africa is also about capacity building. So all of my fossils have been returned to Morocco, right? Which is not the way this has been done in many cases in the past, right? Where people are still taking somewhat kind of neocolonialist approach, right? But I think that we don’t live in colonial times anymore. We have a responsibility to make sure that the field work we’re doing is a win win scenario.

ALEX ATACK: So maybe, some time long after we’re all gone, someone will end up picking up the work Ernst Stromer started and then Nizar Ibrahim continued. And they’ll look at this minefield of conflicting evidence for how Spinosaurus might or might not have lived, and they’ll be able to parse through it all to find a definitive answer to this dino mystery that has plagued and frustrated and broken the hearts of palaeontologists for decades. But until then… Spinosaurus is going to drive people crazy.

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Alex Atack and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry, and sound design and mixing by Youssef Douazou. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar and Finbar Anderson.

A special thanks to everybody who spoke to us for this episode: Nizar Ibrahim, Matteo Fabbri, Rotraut Baumbauer, Paul Sereno and Don Henderson.

We’ll post photos from Nizar’s expeditions and the ever changing artist impressions of Spinosaurus over the years on our Instagram, its @kerningcultures.

BLEEP

ALEX ATACK: And I don’t who won that fight, I should probably know that.

DANA BALLOUT: We should definitely find out who won. 

ALEX ATACK: We should definitely find out who won that fight. 

DANA BALLOUT: Let’s Google it. Jurassic Park…

ALEX ATACK: Who wins? T-Rex V…

DANA BALLOUT: Spinosaurus wins the fight.

ALEX ATACK: Spinosaurus won? Okay, there you go.

STING